Social Networking Goes Professional

August 28, 2007

Doctors, Salesmen, Executives Turn to New Sites to Consult,
Commiserate With Peers; Weeding Out Impostors

By JESSICA E. VASCELLARO
August 28, 2007; Page D1

When radiation oncologist Michael Tomblyn recently saw a 21-year-old patient whose eye was protruding from its socket, he turned to his fellow physicians for help. Dozens of doctors offered suggestions, including fungal infection, HIV-associated lymphoma or a cocaine-associated sinus problem, eventually steering him toward the correct answer: rhabdomyosarcoma, a fast-growing cancer most often observed in young children.

The diagnosis didn’t take place in a doctor’s lounge. It happened on Sermo.com, a social-networking site for licensed physicians, which Dr. Tomblyn and 25,000 doctors like him visit regularly to consult with colleagues specializing in areas from dermatology to psychiatry.

“It is a way for us to commiserate and know we are still talking to others like us,” says 36-year-old Dr. Tomblyn, who works for the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

Social networking, popularized by teens sharing information with their friends online on Web sites such as Facebook Inc., is now blooming in the business world, thanks to new social networks that enable professionals and executives in industries such as advertising and finance to rub virtual elbows with colleagues.

Millions of professionals already turn to broad-based networking sites like LinkedIn to swap job details and contact information, often for recruiting purposes. Business executives also have turned to online forums, email lists and message boards to sound off on information related to their industries.

Now, online services are trying to promote a more personal type of business networking. Unlike relatively simple message boards that are open to all, these new sites — including Sermo.com for doctors and INmobile.org for the wireless industry — have features such as profile pages showing professional credentials; personal blogs that function like a kind of online diary; links to “friends” online; electronic invitations to real or online events; and instant-messaging.

Social networking is just one of many consumer technologies, including blogs, wikis and virtual worlds, to cross over into the corporate world. It is happening as social networking is moving more into the mainstream. Leading consumer social-networking sites attracted more than 110 million unique monthly U.S. visitors in July, up more than 40% from the previous July, according to comScore Inc.

For a variety of reasons, social networking has been slower to take off in the business world. Employees are wary of disclosing too much to potential competitors, and loose-lipped executives can easily embarrass themselves and their companies online. Policing these services’ memberships to weed out impostors can be difficult, and the sites are still in the early stages of turning their networks into sustainable businesses. Also, business users typically have less time to devote to socializing online and are willing to do so only if they believe they are getting a unique benefit from the site.

“Professionals are fairly protective about their social networks which they spend their whole lives to build,” says Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. He adds that the appeal of social networking is limited largely to industries where workers are fairly isolated from their colleagues on a day-to-day basis, like medicine, construction and sales.

Many of the new services are free to members. Revenue comes from advertising or charging outside businesses access to data and member discussions. For example, Sermo Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., generally charges $100,000 to $150,000 a year to nonmedical businesses like hedge funds, which use it to research such things as how doctors feel about new drugs. They can monitor online discussions, with the doctors’ names omitted, or see a tally of topics being discussed on the site — like a new medical device or a controversial cancer treatment — to determine what’s rising or falling in popularity.

The site, founded by Daniel Palestrant while he was a surgical resident in Boston and launched last year, discloses its business model to users when they register. Members say they don’t mind that their conversations are accessible to others, particularly since their identities are concealed. In this, Sermo is different from many other sites. Doctors are generally more interested in getting treatment advice and access to other doctors’ experiences than in networking for new business partners. As a result, the site doesn’t require users to use their real names, although Sermo itself verifies and holds the identities of everyone who registers.

INmobile.org — a social network for the wireless industry launched last year by Adam Zawel, former director of the Yankee Group’s Wireless US Research Program and the executive search firm IdealWave Solutions, based in Harvard, Mass. — has a different business model. Its basic services are free to its members, about 730 high-level executives at cellphone makers, wireless operators and media companies. But members can choose to pay $2,000 a year to list promotions and ads in a special “marketplace” section.

Some of the new sites simply charge a membership fee. This fall, for example, Reuters Group PLC is planning to launch a new social-networking service, tentatively named “Reuters Space,” for fund managers, traders and analysts. For a fee, which hasn’t yet been set, they will be able to log on to create profiles with industry-relevant information like their “asset class” and “instruments,” check financial news feeds and ruminate about the industry on personal blogs. However, the Reuters service will only allow employees to join if their companies are Reuters customers. It also plans to allow companies to block certain features like blogging and to archive employees’ online activities for compliance purposes.

Online networking services are trying to broaden their appeal with new ways of making sure their members are who they say they are. For example, Sermo authenticates each of its members by checking their credentials against several of the 10,000 databases they have access to. The service also requires users to answer three verifiable personal questions, ranging from their phone number to where they got their medical degrees before they can sign up.

INmobile.org relies on member referrals and email confirmations, but says it is looking into stricter methods, like calling up the person or their colleagues, since emails can be easily faked. The service says it turns away more than half who apply, admitting only director-level employees and above from large companies, top-level executives from smaller companies and vice-president level and above from midsize businesses.

Even after these measures, it can be difficult getting business people to converse freely with each other online. Alexander Pigeon, vice president of international for MLB Advanced Media LP, the interactive media and Internet arm of Major League Baseball, is guarded about what he shares on INmobile.org, which he recently joined to stay on top of big trends in wireless. “I certainly wouldn’t post something about my company that wasn’t publicly released,” says Mr. Pigeon, who instead sticks with “pontifications” on broad trends like the future of mobile music.

But taking a risk on an advertising social-network paid off for Angela Glenn of Long Beach, Calif. The 40-year-old graphic designer first joined a free social network created by the blog AdRants as a “lurker,” reading but not contributing to the site. Before long, she gained the confidence to debate topics like Web-site design, and she and one sparring partner grew so fond of each other’s styles that they eventually started an ad agency together, the GASP Company LLC. “You get to hear potential partners out and see how they think about things,” she says. “It’s the closest thing you get to a personal recommendation.”

 

 

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Salesforce.com’s New Small-Business Service

August 23, 2007

By Richard Morochove

If your e-commerce site is an important source of customer leads, a new Salesforce.com service could be just what you need to streamline the work of turning a new lead into a new customer.

Salesforce Group Edition is the successor to the company’s Team Edition customer relationship management service. The major enhancement is its tight integration with the Google AdWords pay-per-click (PPC) advertising service. The integration with AdWords is the best I’ve seen, as it allows you to easily determine which search engine advertising keywords deliver the most new customers and added revenues to your business. You will need to make a few modifications to your Web site to take advantage of this feature, however.

Complete AdWords Integration

A PPC ad service can drive more visitors to your Web site. You write text ads that display next to the results for specific terms, or keywords, that people enter in search engines. You pay for each visitor who clicks on your ad and is then redirected to your Web site. (Read more about AdWords at “Search-Engine Ads“.)

The ability to track the trail of PPC ad clicks, from the initial site visit to the sales lead and ultimately to a sale, is not new. Generally you can see this information in several places: your AdWords account, your Web server logs, and a CRM application.

The elegance of Salesforce Group Edition lies in the way it seamlessly assembles the data from all of these sources in one place so that viewing and analyzing the results of your PPC ads is easier. You can readily see which keywords bring you the biggest bang for your advertising buck. Since the lead-source information updates every 15 minutes, you can track results almost as they happen.

Tracking Leads From Other Sources

Unfortunately, Salesforce Group Edition isn’t integrated in the same way with other PPC ad services, such as Microsoft adCenter and Yahoo Search Marketing; though you certainly can use Salesforce Group Edition with these services, the reports aren’t as complete. However, you can also employ the service to track other leads, such as telephone inquiries, e-mail, trade shows, and referrals from other Web sites.

Source


Salesforce Dives Into the Mash Pit

August 22, 2007

by Steve Hamm

One sure-fire way for a tech company to generate excitement is to link up with Web search king Google. Salesforce.com, the high-profile seller of on-demand services, hardly needs the Google glow, but it’s getting it anyway. On Aug. 22, Chief Executive Marc Benioff is set to announce a new service, Salesforce for Google AdWords, that combines his company’s easy-to-use interface with Google’s powerful advertising engine.

Using the new program, Salesforce.com customers can manage their advertising campaigns from beginning to end. They can create advertisements, place bids with Google’s targeted advertising service, monitor the performance of the ads, and track all further interactions with the customers who click on them. “It helps eliminate click fraud,” says Benioff. “Now there’s a closed loop, so you know who clicked on your ad and what they bought”.

Salesforce.com’s application is part of the so-called mashup phenomenon, where two or more online applications are combined to create something more powerful than either is by itself. Until now, most mashups have been used on consumer Web sites—most of those used by businesses do very simple things, such as combine Google’s maps with business locations. The Salesforce.com application thoroughly integrates its core customer-management program with Google’s AdWords service. “Until now, I haven’t seen a lot of business value in mashups,” says analyst Rob Bois of AMR Research. “This is a real business value you couldn’t achieve without it.”

ALL IN THE FAMILY. The new application comes at a time when Salesforce.com’s fortunes are soaring. Its most recent quarterly earnings report on Aug. 16 blew the doors off analysts’ expectations. It added 57,000 new subscribers, bringing the total to 501,000. Meanwhile, revenue grew by 64%, to $118 million, putting the company on track to achieve nearly $500 million in revenues this fiscal year. After the earnings report, Credit Suisse upped its revenue estimate for the year to $489 million, from $487 million (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/16/06, “Salesforce.com Posts 2Q Loss, Raises View”).

The new service will carry an initial promotional price of $300 per customer per month. Long-term pricing will be set by the time of the service’s official release in October. Since only Salesforce.com subscribers can use the new application, it feeds the company’s core business, as well. “It’s like having our parents become friends with our in-laws,” says Benioff.

For now, Salesforce.com only plans a Google version, since Google has an 85% share of the targeted search advertising market. However, Salesforce is evaluating Yahoo!’s upcoming new paid search technology, too. A Google spokesperson says, “We are pleased to see third-party developers using the Google AdWords API to create new applications that extend the reach of Google’s advertising products. Equipped with more information, businesses can make better decisions, create more value out of their marketing efforts, and ultimately reach more customers.”

BETA RUN. The foundation for the company’s new offering is a service introduced in March by Kieden, a small startup that participates in Salesforce.com’s AppExchange directory of online applications. Salesforce.com bought the smaller company in early August and is beefing up the service before its October relaunch.

“AppExchange has become a viable lead generation and marketing tool, and now Salesforce.com is incorporating the very technology that is being built in the ecosystem,” says analyst Erin Traudt of market researcher IDC. “It will be interesting to see what else Salesforce.com may look to incorporate from the community in the future.”

Already, about 45 customers have been using the Keiden service in what Salesforce.com considers a test version. But even the early version is attracting kudos. Among its fans is Avideon, an online marketing consultancy based in Baltimore. It uses Keiden on behalf of its advertiser customers. “This is a tremendous application,” says Avideon Chief Executive Rich Wiklund. “Marketing has been the last bastion of unaccountable spending in corporations. By having this connection, marketing can at last be held accountable.”

Source: www.businessweek.com


Site of the Week: Cozi

August 10, 2007


If you’re looking to make sense of your busy family life, Cozi can help. This free service provides a family calendar, a shopping list, and messaging online or via a downloadable program. It’s low on features, but the ones it has are excellent and easy to use.


Incredibly intuitive interface. Everyday language support affords an easy way to set up your calendar. Creates collage screen savers of your family album. Offers a calling service that reads you your shopping list when you’re on the go.

Lacks the versatility and sophistication found in most other tools of its kind.


Cozi.com
http://www.cozi.com

Cozi is a free, easy-to-use service that offers a shared family calendar, lists, and messaging to keep your busy family organized. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would have said the very idea of a shared family organizer program oozes dorkiness. My mom would’ve had as much chance of convincing me to sign in to a family scheduling network as she would of convincing the family to wear matching sweaters and fanny packs on vacation. Imagine my surprise when I checked out Cozi.com‘s family collaboration program and found out it was actually pretty cool.

Cozi is available as either a downloadable or a Web application. The downloadable program can, of course, be used off-line and has a few more features than the Web version, such as a collage screen saver. Both versions are focused on helping families manage the chaos of family life. Cozi geared toward people who value an easy-to-use organizational solution more than the latest, greatest technology. Hence Cozi doesn’t have the advanced features you’d find in a full-fledged Personal Information Manager (PIM)

Getting started is easy: After signing up, you enter the name, e-mail, and cell phone number of every family member using the account and set a family password. Cozi can sync all computers in the household on that account, so any changes made on one computer will be reflected on all of them.

I love how easy everything on Cozi is to use. The service features a blocky but polished and intuitive interface built with AJAX. To set an appointment or event on the calendar, simply click on the calendar, type up your note, and you’re done. Cozi’s cool Everyday Language feature makes it even easier. Instead of having to click through the calendar to find the date, then clicking on the date and writing your note, Everyday Language programming can understand and translate most notes you’re likely to write. For instance, say you want to schedule a doctor’s appointment for August 3. Simply type “Aug 3 Doctor’s Appointment at 4pm” and Cozi posts a note reading “Doctor’s Appointment” on Aug 3 at 4 p.m. in your calendar. Cozi can even work with phrases like “tomorrow” and “next Tuesday.” The service figures out what date tomorrow or next Tuesday is and posts your note accordingly.

The same goes for recurring events. If you want to make sure to remember your weekly PTA meeting, for instance, just type “PTA meeting every Thursday” and Cozi posts a weekly reminder every Thursday in your calendar. This works if you want to schedule an event every day for a given number of days, every other day, every 14 days—you get the picture. It’s very versatile. Every member of your family has his or her own color coding, so you can easily tell which events belong to which family member. You can also send your appointments to your cell phone as a text message to check your schedule on the run.

The Shopping List feature lets you build your grocery list by adding ingredients from a supplied list. The ready-made lists contain only items you’d find in a supermarket, but you can create whatever kind of list you’d like and just type in items yourself and title them however you’d like. You can then send this list as a text message to your cell phone, or you can call a Cozi call center and an automated operator will read your list to you. Cozi’s Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system reads items using a text-to-speech system that mimics actual speech. It can handle most words you throw at it but has difficulty with more obscure words. This read-back feature is handy if you find yourself shopping without your list or want to check if anyone has made any changes since you last checked it.

Cozi can also serve as messaging central for your household. You can send messages to family members’ e-mail accounts or cell phones with the Messages Box on the home page, but only the downloadable version of Cozi allows you to send mass messages to everyone on your Cozi account. The downloadable version also creates a Cozi Collage, which makes a screen saver by creating a collage of your family’s photos. The collage guesses which photos go together and is pretty good a creating coherent collages. These screensavers will also display reminders for upcoming events posted on your calendar.

Cozi’s Outlook integration intelligently synchronizes your work schedule with your family schedule. It adds to Cozi only those appointments that would be relevant to your family. For instance, if you had lunch meeting at noon in your work schedule it wouldn’t show up on your Cozi schedule. However, if you have an overnight flight out of town in your work schedule (or any other appointment outside of work hours), it’s automatically posted to your Cozi calendar. It’s a great way to keep you out of trouble if you’re the type who forgets to tell your spouse ahead of time when you have to work late.

This is the collaboration application to have for organizing your family life. It has simple, intuitive functionality that suits its family target audience perfectly. The thing is, the software is so focused on family use that using it for anything else would be awkward. There are more sophisticated services out there, such as AirSet.com, that can organize your family life, personal life, and business life all in one place. Cozi would be inappropriate for business use, for instance. Still, knocking Cozi for focusing just on families is like slamming the Lifetime network for its lack of testosterone-laden action movies. Cozi caters to its audience’s needs very well. It may not provide the versatility of more advanced organization tools, but I haven’t seen any tool that matches Cozi’s ease of use. Cozi is a strong choice for people looking to bring order to their family life.

Source
Visit Cozi


Mailbag: Web-Based Appointment Scheduling

August 5, 2007

By Richard Morochove

This month I answer a reader’s question about Web-based scheduling services.

I am a social worker in a group private counseling practice. We track our billing using software that has a scheduling module built in, but we’ve never used it. It seems too clumsy, too difficult to customize around the personal schedules of nine therapists. We’ve stayed with paper appointment books. This works but is cumbersome, especially when someone calls in and asks, “When is my next appointment?” or when you have to flip through nine books to find the first opening someone has for an urgent caller.

Is there an intelligent way to evaluate appointment software, short of downloading trial versions for installation? We have been told the wave of the future is online, Web-based scheduling services that allow a prospective client to book an appointment at any time without a phone conversation.
–Terry Moore, Omaha, Nebraska

There are many different appointment scheduling applications, and there’s no easy way to evaluate their suitability for a given situation without using trial versions, as available.

Start by analyzing your business needs, as I outlined in an earlier column. That article was about choosing accounting software, but the same principles apply in your circumstances: First analyze your needs, then rate the capabilities of each application in that context.

Stand-Alone or Integrated?

The appointment schedulers I’ve seen built into financial management or billing applications never seem to be quite as good as the stand-alone programs. Of course, the downside of using a stand-alone appointment scheduler is the lack of integration with your billing app.

Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Web-based business application services. They tend to be easier to set up than packaged applications that you install on your own PC, and they usually handle software updates and data backups automatically.

Web-based apps are also more likely to offer online self-service. Customers can access certain capabilities over the Internet, if you permit it.

Benefits of Client Self-Service

Allowing your clients to book their own appointments online delivers several benefits. It can increase client satisfaction since it lets them easily schedule an appointment based upon their top priority, whether that’s the earliest possible booking, the most convenient time, or seeing their favorite therapist. Clients can also cancel appointments or change times.

A Web-based service is available for your clients to use 24 hours a day since it does not depend upon someone answering your phone during business hours. This also relieves your staff of some tedious scheduling-related tasks.

You’ll still need someone to answer the phone to schedule appointments: Not every client will have Internet access, and some will not feel comfortable booking appointments online.

AppointmentQuest Web-based Scheduling Service

AppointmentQuest Online Appointment Manager is a highly capable Web-based appointment scheduler with client self-service capabilities. It offers six membership packages with varying features and capacities, priced at $7 per month and up.

You can try out AppointmentQuest by signing up for a free 30-day trial account. I found the application process easy, but setup proved time-consuming and somewhat problematic.

You must go through a multistep procedure to configure schedules, add personnel and locations, and more. I got lost somewhere in New Account Setup and couldn’t figure out how to resume the setup process.

I wound up stuck in Suspended Schedule Status. I knew–and the online help confirmed–that customers can book appointments only when the schedule status is Active. However, the online help did not explain how to change the status to Active. Online help that tells you what you already know isn’t very helpful.

I finally used a Web-based form to query support and was pleasantly surprised when, despite the stated 48-hour turnaround, I received a detailed e-mail response within a few minutes. I was then able to complete the setup.

Highly Customizable

Despite the setup glitch, I’m impressed by AppointmentQuest. It offers a wealth of scheduling capabilities. You can change the appointment interval, set an appointment lead-in or lead-out to add time between clients, and establish an appointment cancellation deadline. I think it would be simple to set different work hours (including split shifts), days off, and vacation days for each therapist.

You can customize the Web interface for both you and your clients, changing fonts and colors. You can add your business name, logo, and contact information. You can also modify appointment e-mail notification messages and policies for both clients and staff.

It’s easy to check availability, and you can activate the Online Appointment Scheduler for use by clients. There are several ways to link from your Web site to your appointment data, including options for both new and returning clients. The client interface is intuitive and easy to use.

Credit Card Billing

The AppointmentQuest package that appears most appropriate for your practice is Gold PRO, which handles an unlimited number of appointments for up to ten employees, for up to 24 months in advance.

E-mail appointment reminders can be sent to clients and therapists, as well as to an office administrator. Gold PRO supports both rescheduling and recurring appointments.

Appointment and contact information can be synchronized with Microsoft Outlook or the Palm Desktop. You an also export data to a spreadsheet and prepare appointment books in PDF.

You could even opt for credit-card processing, which collects fees or deposits from clients when they make appointments. That feature requires a merchant account, and AppointmentQuest charges transaction-processing fees that vary depending upon the plan you select.

The Gold PRO package costs $100 per month. Discounts apply if you agree to a six-month or one-year contract. For your group, the cost for this plan would amount to about $11 per month per therapist. This sounds pretty affordable to me, though it does cost more than a paper appointment book. You’ll need to decide if the scheduling capabilities are worth it.

Source


Nifty Web Services

August 1, 2007

By Steve Bass

Every couple of days a new Web service pops onto the scene. Some are forgettable, but the ones I’ve got for you this week are definitely keepers.

Jott: Send Yourself a Note

Say you’re driving home or walking the dog and have a gem of an idea. (Not me, of course. I’m thinking of you.) If your mobile phone lets you, you can record the thought as a personal message. But there’s a better way.

Use your speed dial to call Jott (877/568-8486). Talk for 30 seconds and Jott turns what you say into text, then sends it to you via e-mail. Have others you’d like to send a Jott to? Just add their name and e-mail address to your Jott contact list.

Use Doodle to Coordinate a Meeting

Take 50 people and try to get them to schedule a get-together or a meeting. As my friend Monica said, when she told me about Doodle, “it can be a nightmare of e-mails, and back and forth phone calls as you try to find the perfect date and time.”

The trick, she said, is to use Doodle, a free Web-based service that lets participants vote on the best time, date, location–whatever. Try a working sample, then participate in my Doodle poll to see when’s the best time to meet at my office for a cup of java. [Thanks, Monica.]

Get Hard-to-Get Web Invites

I get more than my fair share of invitations into Web-based services; I’ve tried Joost, Pownce, and GrandCentral, for instance. Lest you miss out on the fun, I’ve found a site that might make it easier for non-journalists to get invites to new services.

InviteShare lets visitors request invitations from others who have extras. If you have invites you’re not using, you can offer them on the site. Here’s a list of the most popular invitations on the site.

Dig This: When the power went out in San Francisco last week and access to our Web site was spotty, we discovered our IT Department has a sense of humor.

Get Your Blogs in E-Mail

I’ll read a blog online only if I’m forced into it. My preference is to have the blog delivered to me via e-mail. That way I can choose to read it now or later or not at all.

Yes, I know, I’m an oddity. (Don’t rub it in.) Most people seem to use one of thousands of RSS readers–but I don’t need yet another program sitting in my system tray.

For a long time, I used Squeet.com. The site let me configure all my RSS feeds for delivery by e-mail. One day Squeet stopped working. “Squeet will be unavailable while it is undergoing an extended maintenance period”, they said. Very extended.

Hamid Shojaee, the CEO of Axosoft, the brains behind Squeet, had a candid reply to my complaints: “After pushing it for nearly 8 months, we had VERY LITTLE interest in the product. Only 10,000 users (non-paying, of course) and the servers used for it were starting to choke because of the sheer volume. (Squeet checked over 50,000 feeds per day, most of them multiple times.) On top of that, Outlook 2007 and nearly every other email client also has RSS capabilities built-in. So we had a hard decision to make–keep investing in a system that seems to be a dead-end or refocus our efforts on other stuff.”

As I said, very extended.

I moved all my RSS feeds to Yahoo Alerts and it was terrific, for a while. Then it stopped.

Dig This: I love original, surprising videos. Here’s one about a bunch of Norwegian kids playing on a railroad track. I’m guessing you’ll watch it twice. [Thanks, Jack.]

Forwards From RssFwd

I’m on a new service now, RssFwd. It does what Squeet and Yahoo Alerts did; the big difference is that it still works.

It’s easy enough to use. Copy and paste a blog’s URL (try http://blogs.pcworld.com/tipsandtweaks/) into the Submit field. RssFwd finds the XML content feed.

A reader recently suggested two slick sites I definitely plan to try.

“I’ve been an e-mail subscriber for years and enjoy reading your articles. You seem to have forgotten two of the major players for to RSS to e-mail. What about Feedburner‘s e-mail service or FeedBlitz? With these you can also keep track of your subscribers and more.”
–Blog Bloke

By the by, Blog Bloke has a useful site about blogging called InstaBloke.

Dig This: You hear how often Apple iPods are stolen? Yep, they’re grabbed on subways and buses, and right on the street. That’s because iPods are distinctive and easily spotted. I found a nifty way for you to protect your iPod: Hide it inside a not-likely-to-be-stolen Microsoft Zune. Visit Hide-a-Pod for details and ordering information. [Thanks, Mike D.]


Let’s Get Together

August 1, 2007

It’s not just who you know. It’s also who they know, and what they know. Online social networks have the potential to connect you to a vast world of people and resources, and they’ve gone from fad to fact of business life. Generally speaking, social networking services connect your list of personal contacts to the lists and profiles of others, giving you a bigger Rolodex of potential associates. These networks are finding ever more ways to be useful for tasks like finding employees and sales prospects, tracking down expertise, spreading marketing messages, and gathering customer feedback. Here are six services worth knowing.

Best for…Finding professionals

LinkedIn

What it is: A membership service through which 11 million people list work experience, references, and job goals. LinkedIn’s search engine, which scans the profiles, is an excellent tool for recruiting and job hunting. It’s aimed at individuals, though some companies use it.

What’s cool: A jobs area gives companies a huge base of connected businesspeople to recruit from. An answers service, which allows the posting of business questions, has a start-up and small-business category.

Drawbacks: Network spam–people you don’t know will ask to connect with you.

Price: The basic version is free. Premium versions offer features such as a greater number of introduction requests, fuller access to other people’s profiles, and the ability to directly contact people who aren’t connected to you. Plans range widely, from $60 to $2,000 a year (or $20 to $200 a month).

Best for…Looking good fast

Small World Labs

What it is: An online service that hosts customized social networks that use your own branding and Web address. Small World builds it; you can use it to link employees or to turn customers into a social network so they can share ideas.

What’s cool: Support for reviews, ratings, and a video gallery allow companies to build libraries of things such as customer-generated product demonstrations. For business use, “friends” can be called “contacts,” and “comments” are “testimonials.” You control what happens to customer data, reducing privacy issues.

Drawbacks: It’s pricey, though cheaper than hiring IT staff to build and maintain a network.

Price: There’s a $10,000 to $75,000 setup fee. Monthly hosting fees vary based on the size of the network; it typically falls between $500 and $3,000.

Best for…Marketing to Gen-Y

MySpace

What it is: You know about MySpace. About 65 million people use it to create pages with personal pictures, blog entries, video clips, and links to the pages of their friends. Its size and the passion of its users make MySpace a good way to build buzz among consumers, especially younger ones. Bands and authors build pages looking to get linked to by MySpace members and featured on MySpace pages dedicated to music or artists.

What’s cool: Even if you don’t have a MySpace page, the company’s partnership with Google allows placement of ads targeted to specific pages, interests, and searches. If you have a page, you control how it looks, and it’s easy to post audio and video.

Drawbacks: It’s easy to develop an ugly MySpace page. It takes time to maintain a good one–time you could be spending on your main website.

Price: Free

Best for…Mobile marketing

Twitter

What it is: A message-posting service designed to let people send very short messages–140 characters or less. While many people use it for short-form blogging, marketers can use it to post quickie updates to customers and work groups can use it to keep tabs on what other members are doing.

What’s cool: Free search engines, developed by third parties, let you type in your company name and see Twitterers talking about it. In addition to computers, Twitter also runs on cell phones, so customers or co-workers don’t have to be at a desk to get or post messages.

Drawbacks: Twitter is still experimental, and its developers haven’t done anything to tailor it for business use. Making it work requires building your own network of customers or clients.

Price: Free

Best for…Hearing customers

Yelp

What it is: An online service that lets users rate and comment on local businesses. You can see what your customers think about you and engage with them.

What’s cool: Yelp can help entrepreneurs move their real-world buzz to the Web by capturing it in writing. The feedback provided by reviews and ratings can be invaluable–and it’s cheaper than running a survey. Business owners can engage customers directly. Yelp also offers a sponsorship program in which companies can pay for increased prominence in searches.

Drawbacks: You don’t control the content; consumers can post whatever they like. Business sponsorships are currently available in only three cities: San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Price: Free to register. Sponsorships cost $250 to $2,000 a month.

Best for…Helping salespeople

Visible Path

What it is: Software that integrates with e-mail, CRM applications, and other corporate programs to produce a searchable web of the relationships that exist within and outside a company.

What’s cool: Companies can use Visible Path’s software to grease the rails for salespeople by giving them better introductions to potential clients–the theory being that someone in your company might well have a good relationship with someone at a potential client company. It even defines the closeness of contacts (who’s one personal connection away, two away, and so on).

Drawbacks: There’s still not a lot of hard data to verify that using social networks leads to more sales than traditional cold calling.

Price: The basic version is free; a version with added support and administration is $20 per subscriber per month.

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