Social Networking Online
The time-honored ritual of hobnobbing with peers and colleagues to build social and professional connections once took place almost exclusively at luncheon meetings, company "after-hours" and the occasional conference or convention. In recent years, though, a new crop of entrepreneurs, along with a fair number of veteran business owners, are looking to the Internet to boost their bottom lines.
Formerly the domain of teens and singles on the prowl, today's social networking Web sites may well have the makings of a corporate hunting ground, teeming with prospects, career opportunities and marketing options. Growing ranks of business-minded individuals striving for a competitive edge are posting and messaging about referrals, jobs, leads and resources to a significant degree and they're seeing results.
According to a Social Media Success Summit survey, 81% of all marketers said their social media efforts generated exposure for their business, with nearly 70% responding that they put in as little as six hours per week into those efforts. Half of the survey respondents cited a rise in search engine rankings as a major benefit to investing in social networking.
In fact, sites such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and a slew of others allow subscribers to interact, share company news, market and even develop "communities" around products or services.
LinkedIn is one of the most popular business-related social networking Web sites. As of mid-2009, the free site boasted more than 39 million members from more than 200 countries and 170 industries. The company claims that nearly 50% of its members are decision makers; the average household income of users is $110,000; and the average age is 41.
Instead of friends, LinkedIn contacts are called connections-people members know and/or trust in business. Some of the main uses for LinkedIn are:
- Posting career and educational information, similar to a resume, in a profile
- Inviting people (even if they're not members) to become connections
- Asking connections for introductions to their contacts. A member's contact network consists of direct connections, connections of each of their connections (called second-degree connections) and connections of second-degree connections (called third-degree connections).
- Requesting referrals from connections. These are written recommendations posted on users' profiles.
- Listing jobs and searching for potential candidates
- Researching companies and managers before going into interviews
Like similar social networking sites, members can add posts from blogs and update their status in real time. Other features are available, too:
- LinkedIn Answers is a forum where members can ask questions pertaining to business.
- Members can join LinkedIn Groups for alumni, industry or professional organizations to establish even more business relationships.
- LinkedIn Polls allows users to collect survey data from connections and other members.
- LinkedIn DirectAds offers reasonable rates for small businesses to advertise on the site. Ads can be targeted by audience, seniority, industry, job function, company size and geographic locations.
LinkedIn also offers account upgrades for a monthly fee. Depending on the package, users can send a certain number of direct messages (this skirts the need for an introduction from a connection); conduct referenced searches; and employ saved alerts (a weekly list of profiles that match target criteria).
Facebook is a social networking utility that allows users to connect (or reconnect) with friends, colleagues, family members or any individuals with similar interests. While originally intended for the university population, by 2009, Facebook boasted more than 200 million active users, with 100 million logging on at least once daily. Moreover, two-thirds-plus of its users are outside college, with the fastest growing demographic group averaging 35 years old or more.
From a business standpoint, entrepreneurs are discovering that Facebook can help establish relationships, form new contacts and establish branding. Other perks are increased market visibility and improve search page positioning, all for free.
Like many networking sites, Facebook provides quick access to personal data with a few clicks of the keyboard. But where it truly excels, according to IT professionals, is in its comprehensive privacy controls, a rapidly proliferating subscriber base and an aggressive development platform, with regular addition of new features and applications. To date, more than 52,000 programs, (many adaptable for business use), are available in the Facebook Application Directory. Other highlights include:
- The Wall, a cyber-desktop of sorts, which displays personal information, updates and messages accessible only to persons approved by the subscriber, typically "friends" or members of a private network (e.g. high school, hometown).
- Detailed profile pages.
- An e-mail utility allowing the exchange of private messages.
- Capacity to upload and download photographs and links.
- Event calendar and notification utilities.
- Notebook pages for long messages, journal entries and articles.
- Special interest groups, such as professional/business organizations, fan clubs, activist groups and hobbyists.
The same applications that dish up social action on Facebook likewise function nicely from a business perspective. Several in particular meet the needs of small- to mid-size company owners.
- Facebook Business Account. Creating a company page allows business owners to seek customer feedback, create contact lists and used targeted marketing strategies more effectively. A case in point: a leading international communications corporation has signed on more than 600,000 fans that regularly receive and can access information about products and services, company events and new technology. Independent retailers, restaurants and real estate companies also have found Facebook a handy business tool.
- SlideShare allows subscribers to upload and share business presentations publicly or with selected friends, colleagues and clients.
- Conference Calls, a free application, enables teleconferencing from home or on the road via Skype or any VoIP service.
- Business Cards allows subscribers to personalize their online cards and attach them to messages.
- Facebook Video permits uploading of video files (e.g. product descriptions, promotions, introductions) as well as transmission from mobile devices.
- What I Do enables business owners to market services and products to their Facebook network. Subscribers may list their companies in the online directory as well as recommend colleagues to fellow Facebookers.
In its early days, this site's main purpose was to keep a user's contact information in one place (on their servers) and sync it with their computer's address book. It automatically updates the information in all places when changes are made including in the address books of any contacts that also use Plaxo. The service likewise allows users to mark contacts as a friend, family or business and provides a broad range of choices for other fields such as work, personal and professional information.
Fueled by the success of other sites, Plaxo jumped on the social networking bandwagon with a service called Plaxo Pulse. This utility enables users to share content from a number of sources, including blogs, photos, videos and more. What content different contacts may view can be controlled by categorizing them as friends, family, business etc.
Like LinkedIn, this social networking site is geared toward business. Its roster contains more than 500,000 members from more than 200 countries. Upon joining, users receive links to several people in their country or state.
Unlike LinkedIn, Ryze's network operates on common interests rather than connections. Members receive a free home page, access to topical forums and alerts to geographically close users. Ryze also plays host to special networks related to industries, interests and locations. For a monthly fee, users can create and lead their own networks and access more advance searches.
Members can contribute to network forums by joining conversations, as well as post free ads in the classified section and in networks that allow them. This makes Ryze a good place to advertise products and services.
Other popular social networking sites include:
- Twitter: Referred to as a "microblogging" platform because posts (also called Tweets) can only be 140 characters long. This allows users to easily "follow" other users' posts. Business members can use Twitter to promote specials, sales, new services/products, blog posts, etc. A number of applications also exist to work with or enhance Twitter.
- Ping.fm and HelloTxt: These are examples of sites that allow users to update their status across all social networks, thus eliminating the need to log on individually to each site.
- MySpace: Very similar to Facebook, although it has not experienced its competitor's massive growth. While users tend to skew toward the younger crowd, many businesses have set up profiles.
- Spoke: With information on more than 40 million people from more than 2.3 million companies, this site provides a wealth of lead generation and sales prospecting targets. Contact information includes business and e-mail address, postal address, phone number, title and job history. The most basic membership package is free. Upgraded accounts get access to more searches, prospect list management and target title settings.
- Ning: This free site allows anyone to create their own social network, where users can post comments, questions, photos, videos, photos, music, events, blogs, etc. In addition, Ning features member profile pages, friends, messaging, e-mail notifications, RSS support and third-party applications. Networks can be created for businesses, industries, organizations, etc. Ning offers more than 50 visual themes, as well as the option to completely control the design of the social network.
- Yammer: Similar to Twitter, this social network is meant for sharing short messages with co-workers. Instead of asking "What are you doing?" Yammer inquires users about "What are you working on?" It enables them to discuss ideas, post news, ask questions, share links and information, etc. Yammer also functions as a company directory, where employees set up profiles. Access to networks is limited to users with a valid company e-mail address.
- Go BIG Network: The mission of this site is to connect startups, investors and job seekers. By joining, members receive a free profile, allowing them to search other profiles. According to the site, Go BIG Network "allows startup companies, funding sources, advisors and service providers to post requests for help on-line and have those requests routed to other members of the Network who can help them." Categorized by type, these requests are similar to classified ads. If, for example, a member posts an ad "Looking for Funding," Go BIG Network sends alerts to funding sources that might match the request.
Regardless of how many sites business owners join or the number of connections they rack up, marketing experts agree that successful social networking involves commitment and participation. The general consensus: be selective; do a little research; pick two to four favorites; and dive in.