Last year the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman launched a withering attack on General Motors. GM demanded the right of response, but found itself embroiled in an e-mail dispute with the paper over the words it could use. So it gave up, and published the entire e-mail thread on its blog, FYI.
Where previously it might have resorted to big gun lawyers, it went the other way – deciding to behave like an aggrieved individual and letting the world (or at least its blog readers) know how badly done by it was. Goliath was behaving like David.
If businesses want to know how to exploit social networks, GM’s story is a useful one. Social networks are often said to be about giving power to the people, “democratising the web”, and so on. The implication is that they take power away from traditional suppliers of content on the web, including businesses.
So they can, but if companies can personalise themselves – and what is a company but a group of people? – there is no reason why they cannot play the new game to their own advantage.
This is just one of the attitude shifts businesses need to learn in the face of the social network phenomenon. It is a subtle one – but the key to success is subtlety. If we look at the companies that are already benefiting, they are the ones that think laterally. If we look at the ones that have made (or are making) fools of themselves, they are ones that are either charging on in an uncomprehending way, or are trying to be clever, but not really getting it. To gain the benefits and sidestep the quagmires of social networks, you really have to understand what’s going on.
First, what are we talking about? In a world of notoriously fuzzy definitions, ”social networking” has rather more meaning than most buzz phrases. It is sometimes used synonomously with the ultra-vague ”web 2.0”, but is more usefully thought of as a phenomenon in its own right. Or rather not a phenomenon, but a fast accelerating trend.
The idea is simply that the internet can be used not only as a vertical communication medium, with organisations transmitting to an audience, but also a horizontal one, where the audience members talk to each other. It is not a new idea: bulletin boards and newsgroups pre-date the web, while online forums have had niche success for years.
What has happened, thanks to a combination of ingenuity, skill and venture capital is that, as social networking expert Neville Hobson says, “it’s now so easy to do”. Most people cannot build a website; quite a lot of people can create a blog; everyone with an internet connection can set up a page on Facebook or MySpace.
They can also, with almost no instruction, edit a page on Wikipedia, work out how they can ”vote” for stories or links on rating sites such as del.icio.us or digg, and upload a video to YouTube or an original track to MySpace. Suddenly, we can all with little effort become an author, a journalist, an editor, a film maker or a music maker and producer. It is not surprising that the horizontal communication trend has gone into overdrive.
Although social networking sites and ideas are held together by shared ideas, it makes little sense for businesses to think of them as one. Even similar technologies can be put to very different uses, which is why it makes better sense to consider them according to the ways in which they can help (or hinder) business activities.
“Don’t think of it in a tactical way – what should we do on Facebook? Should we have a blog?,” says Antony Mayfield, a social media specialist with the digital marketing agency, Spannerworks. “You should be focusing on the process of change rather than on each new thing.”
Some initial points. First, traditional websites will not go away. “You still need a place to say this is where the real official information is,” says Chris Heuer, co-founder of the Social Media Club in California. The site can also be used as part of the network, as Steve Jobs decided when he published a letter to iPhone customers on apple.com. “You don’t need a blog to stimulate conversation,” Mr Hobson says.
Second, companies need to consider two more or less distinct online terrains. The home turf, including their own web estate and blogs, which they can control directly. And the ”extended web”, the scary area of blogs, social network sites, wikis and the like where they and their products may be talked about, abused or praised, but on which they can have only an indirect influence. This is where they will need much of that subtlety.
Third, there seems to be little meeting of minds between, on the one hand, lawyers and software security vendors, who tend to emphasise the negative, and on the other agencies and in-company enthusiasts. Legal issues are headed by concerns that personal details can be picked up and used illicitly, and also the worries that employees can inadvertently embarrass, or even damage the company.
Technical concerns are also based around employees’ incautious or improper use of social nework sites. “Social networking has an impact on draining business resources, both in terms of the employees’ time and use of systems including network bandwidth,” says Greg Day, an analyst with the online security company McAfee. “The high level of personal information on a page means that marketing companies can launch targeted spam attacks on employees clogging up the company e-mail network.”
Companies that do not take threats to intellectual property, network security, or commercial reputation seriously are being irresponsible. The trouble is, many companies go no further than this – they see the dangers, they find the benefits hard to discern, they stop. Enthusiasts acknowledge the dangers, but tend to the view that businesses cannot turn their backs on social networking, because it is not going to go away. Better to accept it, and manage it well.
Social network sites are having their most obvious impact in the way companies deal with customers. “People are not passive consumers any more, they want to chat to you and to each other about your services,” says Robin Daniels, senior Europe product manager for Vignette, which helps large organisations with content management. “The danger for business if they don’t participate is that they lose control of being part of the conversation.”
These conversations most typically take place on blogs, though every page of a social networking site will host a ”conversation” that may be relevant to your business or industry. The editing of your company’s page in Wikipedia is also in essence a conversation.
“The first thing is to really understand what your customers are using,” Mr Mayfield says. Then you need to see what they are saying about you – to listen (which usually means reading). “Social networking is about being more transparent, listening to users, being more honest with them, even if it is bad,” Mr Daniels says.
Dell discovered the truth of this in 2005 when influential blogger Jeff Jarvis (www.buzzmachine.com) complained about Dell’s customer service. People piled in to make complaints, with the noise about ”Dell Hell” spilling over into the mainstream media.
Eventually the company responded, launching the Dell2Dell blog to tackle the issue. Largely because of the open attitude of its manager Lionel Menchaca, sentiment towards the company turned round. Mr Menchaca says in the blog that negative comments have gone from above 50 at the worst point per cent to 23 per cent now.
Dell has been able to make a go of blogs on its own turf, but that will not be as easy for all companies. The Tell Shell forum – set up in 1998 – never really gained traction, perhaps because it was too early, but also surely because its ”enemies” did not want to go on the oil group’s territory. They were happy commenting on sites such as Greenpeace’s, but kept well away from shell.com.
It appears that ”own turf” blogs work where there is already a community of users, where the subject is a source of enthusiasm and preferably where the blog is run by an indivual that users can identify with. “I would trust you more than the entity you represent,” Mr Heuer says. “The key is to make it more personal.” Jeff Jarvis suports this in his new praise for Dell; it is clear that it is for Mr Menchaca, rather than the company itself.
General Motors provides more evidence. Its Fast Lane blog is about an enthusiasts’ subject – cars – but is also really the ”Bob Lutz blog”. Mr Lutz is vice chairman, and an enthusiastic contributor – it is noticeable that his posts get many more comments than others.
“It’s not exclusively Bob Lutz, but it’s clear there’s a popularity thing in there,” says Keith Childs, manager of web and new media for GM Europe. “He has a following.” GM has used its Fast Lane success to launch the FYI blog, which covers broader business and reputation issues, and was brought into action to fight the New York Times.
But home-turf blogs are hard work, and may simply not work for your company. This is where you will have to move into the ”extended web” where dangers at least match opportunities. Here there is little point in distinguishing between blogs, social networking sites and other sites such as Yahoo! Answers – any of which could have material that could bolster or harm your company.
It is also worth studying the different ”social” sites, where bookmarks, news, photos or other web elements are posted, then promoted or demoted according to their popularity among users. “Spend some time getting to grips with them,” says Ciaran Norris of the agency Altogether Digital. “Go and hang out to see what’s going on.”
Social network experts all emphasise this need for a serious understanding of the different locations. “The key is to have absolute respect for the forum you’re in,” says Mr Norris. Mr Mayfield says that “our mantra is, can you be useful?”, while Alan Rambam of communications consultancy Fleischmann Hillard says he tells his customers ”Be relevant”.
Wal-Mart’s PR company Edelman would have done well to note such comments before agreeing to sponsor a blog called Wal-Marting across America, written by a couple who were camping in store car parks. It did not reveal this sponsorship which, inevitably, got out and spread like wildfire around the blogging world. It is very dangerous to pull wool over eyes in the social networking world; someone, somewhere will know the truth and will make sure it escapes.
One company that has taken great care to understand the subtleties is More Than, the insurance operation belonging to Royal & SunAlliance. Helped by its agency Spannerworks, it has set up a site, living.morethan.com, which covers environmental issues and has the specific task of pushing the main site up search engine rankings.
It runs stories it hopes will be picked up by bloggers and specialist personal finance sites. The more they link to the site, the higher it is pushed up rankings by search engines – notably Google – that put emphasis on link numbers.
It sounds byzantine, but it has already been shown to work. During summer flooding in the UK, says Roberto Hortal, head of e-business, “we published information about how to make a successful claim. Within days we were number 10 on Google – as there was no other source of this information, it must have been Living.”
Mr Hortal makes the point that whereas PR companies would in the past identify opinion formers and target them, the social netwoking world does not work like that. “We don’t decide which sites are most important – we let people decide where they want to have conversations.” The price is that it is important to give away really valuable information, because only this will be picked up. “The first thing you have to do is relinquish control,” he says.
General Motors Europe has been receiving plaudits among bloggers for its ”social media newsroom”. Like More Than’s site, it is designed to be picked up by online journalists, rather than attempting to engage them actively. The journalists can be official – working for a news site – they could be bloggers, they could even have a special interest page on Facebook.
“We thought this is an audience that wants to get hold of content – traditionally we haven’t necessarily made it easy,” Mr Childs says. GM provides content in forms that they can use. Press releases are published, but instead of giving a press office contact, a row of icons allows them to be transferred to a plethora of “social” sites such as del.icio.us and digg. Photos can be stored on Flickr, the photo sharing site, and GM even provides downloadable videos, not just links to YouTube.
“The site does an amazing thing – it welcomes comments and conversation while allowing users to take any of it and republish,” says a comment from Ignite, a US “social media agency”. “It clearly understands that the destination of the conversations will likely be covered elsewhere, and allows the tools to do so.”
Here is another example of GM’s understanding of the new world. The FYI blog encourages visitors to post videos on YouTube or photos on Flickr: ”tag it with gmfyi and we’ll find it”. A gentle way of collecting content, while fitting perfectly with the way the social network world works.
The potential of social networking to carry out market research is also being tapped. Putting focus groups online is one option, but Dell has gone a stage further – asking customers to tell it what they want from its products.
Posts on the IdeasStorm blog range from complaints (why is RAM so expensive?) to highly constructive (Dell should launch a Linux version), and users are asked to vote on which posts they think are most important – the same technique that ranks news stories or links in sites such as Del.icio.us or Digg. It’s a brilliantly simple form of market research, and Dell has acted on many of the ideas (that Linux version now exists).
An intriguing variation on this comes from Mensa Process, the commercial wing of the Mensa ”clever people” organisation. Using a “robust” social networking platform from BrightIdea.com, it sets selected members tasks on behalf of corporate customers. The task is defined, and they are given seven to 10 days to come up with ideas, which are then refined into a shortlist.
“We recently did an engagement from a Procter & Gamble division looking for ideas on women’s care products,” says David Wynett, general manager of Mensa Process. “Our members really enjoyed this because they could network with people in seven countries.” In another project members generated possible names for a new Diageo, providing rationales for each. “Not a lot of companies can come up with 1,500 names in five days,” Mr Wynett says.
The Mensa Process system is essentially a collaborative tool – and it is this aspect of social network that is causing great interest at the ”heavier” end of the spectrum. Reuters is about to launch Reuters Space, a platform that “enables our customers to build their community in a very secure and private way”, says David Gurlé, head of Reuters Communication Services.
It allows controlled messaging, and also allows documents to be exchanged or ideas discussed with speific target audiences. “Analysts reports could become live documents,” Mr Gurlé says. “Institutions could be given scenarios to play with, and could make contributions that could be taken into account as part of the editing process.” As in marketing, the platform should turn one-way communication into a conversation.
Wikis are regarded as social networking devices because they can be potent aids to collaboration and knowledge management. Mike Lynch, the influential founder of Autonomy, puts them at the top of the social networking pile. “Of all the new phenomena wikis are probably most valuable because they give a quick and easy way to capture corporate knowledge held in people’s heads.”
ABB, the Zurich-based engineering group, uses wikis at a project level precisely to pull together ideas. “Everybody on the team can edit anything,” says Stein-Ivar Aarsaether, who runs the group’s web presence.
But that is just a start. ABB is looking to join companies such as Dresdner Kleinwort Benson in making the wiki the default mechanism for the intranet. “We have 111,000 people on our intranet,” Mr Aarsaether says. “The big challenge is to maintain it and keep it relevant.”
There are dangers here, too: make the intranet too open, and it could become chaotic, restrict it too much and the benefits are lost. Different people will be given different levels of access: at the lowest level they will be able to tag to show they find articles useful, at the highest they will be able to edit. “It’s a matter of finding the right balance,” he says.
Recruiting is an obvious role for social networks. People find people by talking to other people, and networks give them a mechanism for doing that. A growth area here is in private networks, such as the system Dow Chemical is launching at the end of the year.
Dow Connect will use a system provided by Selectminds to create a number of closed networks, the first of which will reach out to ”alumni”, or former employees. “It’s a way for us to reach out to people who have worked with Dow, to have regular dialogue with them, and to recruit some of them back to Dow,” says Julie Fasone Holder, vice president in human resources. “We will post jobs on the network. Some may have found the grass wasn’t quite so green.”
Olivia Cook of SelectMinds, which is building the Dow system, says that ex-employees should be regarded as ambassadors. “They are a huge asset, but unless you keep a relationship going with them, you will lose them.”
As well as attempting to recruit them back, she says, companies can tap their goodwill to find other people who may be suitable. People who have retired make up another pool that companies can tap, as do women who have left to have children. In each case a network can be set up. “We’re talking about keeping a door open,” Ms Cook says.
But the vast majority of recruiting activity is in the public arena. “I use Linked In for two to three hours a day,” says Geoff Shepherd. Mr Shepherd is a UK-based headhunter who specialises in finding IT managers across Europe, and he says the networking site has transformed his life. The US-based site has a strong business focus but, like Facebook and other social networking sites, enoucrages people to link to people they know. This provides a rich seam for the likes of Mr Shepherd, whose 3,200+ connections “give me access to 5m people”.
“It’s like a high class dating service for professionals,” he says, explaining that by using features such as the postcode search he can quickly locate candidates who would otherwise have ben found only after “sitting with a directory, a pile of papers and telephone. As a result, we used to take three months between starting a search and delivering a shortlist – now it’s 15 days.”
While Linked In may appear to have little in common with social networking sites such as Facebook, they appear to be moving inexorably closer together. Facebook is being used increasingly as a recruitment tool, and LinkedIn is contemplating added-value features. “We can in the future add things like blogs,” says Liz O’Donnell, LinkedIn’s director of international.
Facebook is the social networking site most talked about in business circles because it is where young professionals and college leavers are most likely to head. As with blogs, companies have to show considerable subtlety to get results. Ernst and Young has been exploiting the specific features of Facebook to identify members at 50 US colleges looking for careers in finance, accounting or business. It cannot see who they are, but it can place advertisements on their pages telling them E&Y is coming to their campus, and inviting them to meet up.
Alan Rambam of Fleischmann Hillard, which set up the system, says they often then use Facebook’s networking facility. “They ask other young people if Ernst & Young is a good company.” If they are convinced, they may then sign up to the Ernst & Young sponsored Facebook page, which is already popular with young employees: almost 10,000 people are members. Exploitation of most aspects of a social netwok site is impressively comprehensive.
But this convergence between business and social sites could be raising further dangers. There have been some high profile cases of companies withdrawing their offers after seeing what intended recruits were saying about themselves on Facebook, and there have also been issues with loose tongues in emloyee pages.
A more intractable issue is that network sites can muddy the borders between home and work in a way that many people find uncomfortable. “I have a fairly blurred distinction,” Mr Hobson says, “but I know people who like to keep them separate.”
What if a Facebook member of the relaxed tendency “pokes” (that is requests access to) the page of someone in the “separate” tendency – what is the latter to do? ”Yes” breaks down a valued distinction; ”no’” may appear to rebuff a valuable business contact.
There are many more opportunities for misunderstandings to arise. Social (or business) networking is surely an area where a new etiquette will have to coalesce. But that will surely take time.
David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). firstname.lastname@example.org