What Is Social Networking, and How Do You Use It to Achieve Business Objectives?

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If you think social networking is just for finding lost classmates or announcing your favorite bands, boy, are you wrong.

By Christopher Jones

"Baby, check this out. I've got something to say." That's probably the mantra that first comes to mind when someone mentions social networking. People posting their opinions, their photos, what they ate for lunch. But if that's your image of social networking, you haven't looked lately. The MySpace-dominated virtual dormitory has given way to truly useful networking sites that have a place in the new business world. Whether you're an individual or a company, there's something in the new social networking for you.

Whistling in the Dark

So what is the new social networking? In short, it's a way for you to shed light on what your friends and business associates are doing--and to leverage this information for professional gain. As the pace of our lives hastens and the geographic scope of our work expands, it can be challenging--if not impossible--to maintain the kinds of contact that are required to keep networks healthy. When you need to turn to a friend or associate, it's best that it's not a shot from the dark. Once-in-a-blue-moon communiqués aren't the best way to keep your network healthy.


Enter sites like LinkedIn and Facebook and tools like Twitter and wikis. These allow people to build networks and, with minimal effort, keep their friends and associates up to date at all times. It is also easy to send messages to others directly from within these sites. When you see that someone in your network has something interesting or important happening in their lives, you can quickly shoot a note over to them. And because it is coming from within the social network, it is viewed as independent from normal email and spam.


What this means from a business perspective is that your network communications are always fresh. When you need to call upon a friend or associate, the chances of success are greater because your relationship is closer than it would be if you merely made a phone call or sent an email on occasion. Additionally, it means that when a business opportunity--such as a new project or job--arises anywhere in your network, you'll be privy to it right away.

Man, It's So Loud in Here

Before we go any further, let's take a look at the social networking landscape and separate the business locales from the casual ones. When we're looking to leverage social networking for professional purposes, "loud" places aren't exactly the ideal setting.


On the casual end of the spectrum are sites like MySpace and Friendster. On the business side of the spectrum is LinkedIn. Filling the middle like a bulging galactic center is a myriad of other tools and services. Amongst these are full sites like Facebook and Ning and tools like Twitter, Pownce, and wikis. Let's leave the MySpaces for those purely out to have fun and instead focus on the others. Amongst true business networking sites, LinkedIn should be your starting point.


With our target in focus, let's stop the drum machine and start putting social networking to good use.

Absolutely Bill's Mood

Social networking isn't a switch that you just flick on. It takes effort and perseverance to build your network, and this includes not only the handshaking and swapping of business cards, but also the persona and material that you build around yourself. However, the payoff can be great for both individuals and companies.


How you take advantage of social networking depends on your goals. Let's define the three key objectives of social networking for business:


•·                 Personal career development

•·                 Communication and collaboration within an organization

•·                 Getting closer to customers


Whatever your mood, there are ways that you can put social networking sites and tools to work for you.

Rhythm Section Want Ad (Or How Social Networking Can Be Used to Further Your Career)

From the point of view of an individual, one of the best ways to use social networking is to further your own marketability and expand your opportunities. This can be done by...


•·                 Bringing all of your contacts into your LinkedIn network

•·                 Maintaining brief ongoing communications with those in your network

•·                 Monitoring activity across your network for business opportunities

•·                 Establishing yourself as an expert in your field


The first of these, gathering your contacts, is the starting point for your efforts. Many of the people who you know and work with may already be on LinkedIn. With a worldwide membership totaling more than 27 million users, LinkedIn allows you to quickly and easily build a strong network. Positioning yourself one degree away from a vast network is surprisingly easy. A mere 35 direct connections on LinkedIn can connect you to more than 200,000 professionals.


Once your network is in place, the second item, maintaining communications, is easy. With LinkedIn, you can immediately begin enjoying a level of communication that far exceeds what was possible just a few years ago. On your profile page, there is one simple question that is the key to staying, well, linked in. The question is "What are you working on?"


That question is the gateway to our third item: monitoring. Those who really use LinkedIn for business tend to update this status frequently. Such updates from anyone in your network appear in a list when you log in, or you can get them on the go with tools like the LinkedIn application for iPhone. From this simple list, you'll know when someone is looking for help, has a job opening, needs services for a project, or simply has something happening in their lives that will give you a meaningful opportunity to touch bases.


But the LinkedIn status area isn't the only way to monitor activity across your network. Facebook also provides a similar feature, and many people now use tools like Twitter to send off quick notes about what they're doing. Your image of Twitter might be negative as it is often used for very casual purposes by people who for some reason can't stop themselves from announcing to the world that they are eating a sandwich. Twitter is often referred to as a "microblogging" tool, but it is better described as a "micromessaging" tool. Messages on Twitter, or "tweets" as they are called, are limited to 140 characters. So you are not so much blogging about your life but rather firing off little paper airplanes with updates about things that someone might find useful to know.


Our final point in this section is establishing yourself as an expert in your field. There are many ways in which you can do this using social networking tools. These methods include answering questions from other professionals; using your LinkedIn, Facebook, or other profile pages to distribute your writing or samples of your work; creating and maintaining a blog focused on your area of expertise; or participating in a wiki. By establishing yourself as an expert, you take control of the flow of opportunities. Others in your field begin turning to you for advice and guidance, and when that's combined with some proactive self-promotion, you can put yourself in front of those who might need your services without the cost--or the turnoff factor--of traditional marketing.

Someone Keeps Moving My Chair (Or How Social Networking Enhances Internal Communication)

Advancing your own career is not the only way in which social networking can work to your benefit. If you own or have a guiding role in an organization, social networking tools can be used to improve communication within that organization. Better collaboration can lead to a stronger sense of team and ownership, which leads to higher productivity and success.


Tools that can be used for enhancing internal communication include wikis, Facebook groups, wiki-like collaboration software systems, Twitter, and instant messaging services. The types of communication that are facilitated by each of these differ, and many can be used in conjunction with one another to strengthen the network. But in short, what you can expect from this type of social networking is a private, secure environment in which the members of your organization can exchange ideas, engage in discussion to develop these ideas, easily share materials and resources, and keep one another in the loop on business-related activities at all times.


One of the great things about the social networking technology that we have now is that, despite the fact that it is online and therefore essentially Web-based, it does not require you to be tethered to a desktop. A notebook computer or a device like iPhone can keep your team members and business partners in contact no matter where you--or they--are.

Destination Moon

For a more specific example of social networking in a business setting, let's look at a fictional company we'll call Destination Moon. The goal of the team at Destination Moon is to be one of the first companies to offer commercial space tourism by the year 2020, flying civilian passengers to lunar orbit and then returning them safely back to Earth. This is a company that understands technology and uses social networking tools to increase the chances that they will achieve their goals.


Destination Moon uses a wiki-based collaborative software system that allows its researchers, engineers, marketing and communications teams, and executives to share information, contact one another, conduct group chats, manage tasks, and organize documents. Users can interact with the system through email, handheld devices, RSS feeds, Web browsers, and other means, making the system extend further into the social networking domain. Best of all, this activity is conducted in "the cloud"--that digital ether that is the World Wide Web--and therefore centralizes communication and assets, tearing down the walls that can block access and productivity. This is important because Destination Moon works with people spread across four continents.


Members of Destination Moon spend a great deal of time moving between different locations, meeting investors, conducting presentations, and working outdoors on research projects. To stay in touch throughout the day, they use the Twitter and Facebook apps for iPhone to send tweets and status updates back into the cloud. Their colleagues receive these updates on their devices and computers. They upload onsite photos to their private Flickr library, and their marketing and creative teams post sketches, comps, and completed assets into a central library remotely. On Facebook, Destination Moon maintains a closed community that's open only to its employees and trusted associates, thereby allowing them to further their communication and build stronger friendships that in turn strengthen the team.


Thanks to social networking, Destination Moon is making rapid progress, is driven by the vibrant sense of energy that accompanies open and efficient communication, and has already sold thousands of advance tickets to would-be space tourists. While competitors struggle with delays, Destination Moon is on target to reach its goal ahead of schedule.

Working Undercover for the Man (Or How Social Networking Can Put You in Touch with Customers)

Advancing your personal career and improving communication within your organization are both great reasons to get involved in social networking. But what about marketing? Is there a place for social networking in the toolkits of today's marketers? Can companies leverage this growing medium to sell their products and gain insights into their customers? Indeed they can.


Now this doesn't mean that you should view social networking tools as storefronts. You should not be sending sales-pitch tweets or blatantly promoting your products or services on your Facebook profile. Instead, think in passive terms. Social networking allows you to do two things that are key to successful marketing:


•·                 Plant seeds for customer relationships

•·                 Find out what your customers are thinking


These tie in closely with the items we talked about for advancing your personal career. By monitoring your network, maintaining short but regular communications with those in your network, using status updates to establish your involvement in an area, and supporting that involvement and expertise through a blog, you can keep yourself top-of-mind with those who might need your services. Don't make a sales pitch; just have normal conversations about what you're doing. This is one of the least obtrusive ways to build mindshare in our new digital world. And best of all, it's free.


This activity of monitoring and working your network can also bring benefits in the other direction as well. You may not know exactly what your target audience is thinking, but that doesn't have to be the case. As our second item points out, social networking can be a way for your company to connect with customers and learn more about their interests and potential buying habits. While the information you share allows others to learn about you, what you gather from their pages and feeds can be a form of market research for your own business.


As with all things in the realm of social networking, this doesn't imply anything covert or obtrusive. It just means being aware of the world around you, staying in tune with the way the wind blows, and keeping your eyes and ears open for information that might help you refine your services or better target your offerings. It allows you to gain insights that can be put to use when you prepare your true marketing campaigns and initiatives, and it can improve the way you approach and communicate with your customers.

Renew My Subscription

Another way to stay in touch with customers and prospects is by using Twitter (or a similar service like Pownce) to create a newsfeeds for your business. Again, don't use this to make sales pitches. Think of this tool as a micro-newsletter. Use it as you would press releases. This is a wonderful, non-obtrusive way to let customers and prospects know what you are doing, which over time builds mindshare that you can hook into. People who have subscribed to your feed have done so because they are interested in you and they want to hear from you.


A Twitter feed used for this purpose is essentially an always-on, opt-in direct channel to those with whom you want to connect. And Twitter forces you to do something that is key in today's frantic world: be concise. With a 140-character limit, you must craft on-target messages that get to the point quickly. This requires discipline, but the resulting messages are stronger. To make the best use of Twitter, reserve some of those 140 characters for a URL that takes readers to more information. Use a site like TinyURL to create shorter links that conserve space.

The World Before Later On

Although not new--modern social networking sites go back to 2002--the current explosion of participation in social networking has transformed what was once a way to find lost classmates or tell the world about your favorite bands into a new frontier for business. This extends not only to personal career gain, but to marketing as well. Never before have there been so many tools at our disposal that are so easy to use and offer so much potential payoff. And did I mention it's all free?


If you're looking for ways to build stronger professional relationships, advance your career, or find new avenues of opportunities for your company, social networking is your ticket to a large world. If you're not already using tools like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, now is the time to start. You won't be the first to the party, but you'll be part of the group that is charting the business possibilities of this new frontier. In the world of later on, what now seems new will be the norm, and you'll be well-established.


Whether for career development or business growth, start building your social network today and watch the opportunities come rolling in. Who knows, some of them might be giants.

Sites and Tools Mentioned in This Article

Facebook: www.facebook.com

Flickr: www.flickr.com

Friendster: www.friendster.com

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com

MySpace: www.myspace.com

Ning: www.ning.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com

Pownce: www.pownce.com

TinyURL: www.tinyurl.com