When a major national newsmagazine identifies "You"—that is, anyone blogging, posting videos, or networking online—as the Person of the Year, it's fair to say that social collaboration has hit the mainstream. There are a few consumer-oriented social collaboration sites, such as MySpace and YouTube, that grab lots of traffic, media attention, and huge sums of acquisition cash, but what are businesses to make of the social networking buzz? Perhaps because the memory of the first dot-com crash and burn is relatively fresh, established companies are cautiously matching up collaborative functionality with measurable ROI before throwing resources into social networking features like searchable profiles, blogs, tagging, and wikis on internal and customer-facing sites.
There are clear signs that momentum is building for enterprise implementation of social networks as tools to improve internal communication and to deepen customer relationships. The growing number of companies offering private-label social network solutions, as well as IBM's recent entry into the field with its Lotus Connections social software platform for business, is a sure sign of increased demand. Other companies, like LinkedIn and Ryze, have social networking at the core of product offerings that generate revenue by bringing offline business networking practices into the online world. And corporations are continuing to incorporate advertising on affinity networks in their campaigns to reach highly targeted audiences with measurable response rates.
Erica Driver, principal analyst at Forrester Research, agrees that enterprises are taking collaborative networking tools more seriously, particularly for purposes of internal communication. "Right now, social networking is being used primarily for knowledge management and expertise location within companies," she notes. "It can be an extension of the enterprise directory." A basic directory may have an employee's name, location, and job title, but an extended profile format that is the kernel of a social networking platform can allow employees to add details about competencies, project experience and past positions, and to blog and share bookmarks. This added detail can make harnessing the enterprise's internal knowledgebase easier and, with proper access controls, can be useful information for customers as well. Driver cautions, "You have to show the information in context, and selectively," depending on who is viewing the profile, but she adds that most of these tools have such access control embedded.
Christopher Carfi, founder and principal of Cerado Inc., has seen Cerado's private-label social networking tool, Haystack, transform the way that internal communications take place within its customer organizations. "Inside an organization or association, online networks with even basic profiles of its individuals' experience, location, and interest can reduce the time required for organizational problem solving," says Carfi, by enabling quicker connections between the questioner and someone who has solved a similar problem in the past. He also mentions the utility that social networks can have in a postcorporate acquisition environment as a means of aligning personnel from the acquired firm and the acquiring firm. Carfi says, "A network can help you get to know the people on the other side of the fence and knock down stereotypes held by both the acquirer and acquiree."
Tim Lundeen, CEO and founder of WebCrossing, has also experienced the shift in perception of social networks as being primarily C2C applications to becoming powerful B2C tools over the past few years. WebCrossing pro- duces private-label online collaboration applications for its customers, incorporating customizable tools for message boards, personal spaces, and team coordination. Lundeen sees the increased use of social networks for customer service as a natural progression from message board posting functionality. "Message boards are good for solving immediate problems that arise with a product or tool, but not how to use the tool better, or to find best practices," he notes.