14 January 2009

Social networking: is it really a business tool?

Is social networking all it's cracked up to be? If you've ever wondered what Web 2.0 was all about and why, then you're not alone. And in particular, you might wonder just what it can offer your business.

The thought came to me as I wondered -- not for the first time -- where people find the time to report on the minutiae of their lives. And who else might be interested. I'm talking mainly of course about those living relatively uneventful lives, as opposed to those being elected president of the richest country on earth, for example.

Advocates of the likes of MySpace and Twitter argue that if you're not involved in social networking, then you're in decline.

It's a new communications tool and, if you don't make use of it, your employees will anyway, so you'd better get in there. And if your company doesn't, your competitors will, and you'll be left behind, looking like a dinosaur.

It's that old "keep up with the Jones's" routine.

One argument you hear a lot is that we're all connected now, that the world is getting smaller and it's all thanks to the technology. Because you can connect to everyone and anyone, therefore you should.

Yet there are plenty of reasons why, even as an individual, you should be careful about how you approach social networking. You'll have heard many of them before but the central one bears repeating: if a snippet of information isn't something you'd want seen or heard by any future (or present) employer, spouse or children, then you probably shouldn't put it in a public space.

It's also true that any information you put out there is available for those with malicious intent to use. Piece by piece, with all the snippets you put out on the web, others can build up an image of you and your life.

Your pet's name, your mother's maiden name, your place of birth -- none of them are that critical themselves but your bank asks you those questions and the answers shouldn't be easily accessible. Again, that's not to say that you shouldn't put information out there -- just that you need to be aware that the Internet is a very public space.

What's more, just because we call it social networking doesn’t actually mean it's all that social. As one long-term professional Internet user put it, the problem with blogs and comments is that one person sets the agenda. And the problem with Twitter is that it's real-time but it's not conversational and the same is true of Facebook and forums. While the problem with instant messaging is it's one-on-one.

So, what about the business issues? Social networking? It's just communications and you're a business, so you want to communicate, right?

Wrong. A business wants to communicate particular information to particular people at a particular time, a time it chooses -- not everything to everyone. Allowing your employees to go online and broadcast your logo and -- who knows -- confidential company information is a recipe for disaster. Even if that doesn't happen, who's to say where your company name and brand could end up?

If you doubt it, look at the scepticism being displayed by the advertising industry about social networking. As one report put it: "traditional advertisers are especially cautious when it comes to the idea that their brand logo might appear next to an image of a marijuana leaf posted by a 16-year-old. Never mind that Facebook's audience rivals that of some television networks."

The other problem is that you don't know how long many of these companies are going to be in business. Over a year ago, one report found that user engagement -- aka user boredom -- was starting to make manifest itself on social networking sites. As the story put it: "When Friends Reunited enjoyed its "phenomenal" growth period people would join, log in maybe a dozen times, catch up with those class mates they wanted to, then forget about it. On Facebook behaviour seems much the same."

For a business, that's not good enough, if you're going to make serious use of such tools, then you have to persist -- or follow users as they move on to the next slightly more interesting site. And then you have to start all over again. Quite an effort for questionable returns.

Gainsaying the phenomenon completely is like pushing water uphill. And of course it all depends what you want to achieve. Just go into it with your eyes wide open and your bullsh*t detectors on full alert.

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