The Business of Being Social

By Eileen Feretic  |  Posted 2008-07-30 Print this article Print

Social networks aren’t just for fun anymore. Some Companies use them to accomplish serious business.

When you mention social networking, most people think about high school and college kids getting together virtually on Facebook or MySpace. So far, most businesses haven’t gotten too excited about this technology—and few have invested serious money in it. Considering the state of the economy, that’s not surprising.

But that “It’s not for us” attitude is starting to change, as pioneering businesses find ways to use social networks to get closer to employees, partners and customers. The executives at these companies see the value many businesspeople get from community sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and XING, and they are evaluating what these networks offer to entice busy professionals to spend their valuable time on these sites.

For young people, social networking is just that—a social event. They get to exchange ideas with others who share their interests, and they have some fun along the way. With communities such as LinkedIn, however, the members have more serious reasons for joining: Most hope to make connections that can help them do their jobs more effectively and advance their careers.

Businesses considering a social networking initiative need to recognize the impetus that drives people to these community sites: What value do members get in exchange for their information and time? To be successful with social networking, companies must understand their customers, research their industry and run pilot programs to find out what they can offer their target audiences in exchange for their participation.

In this issue, we report on two industry leaders that are experimenting with social networking: the New York Life Insurance Co. and Del Monte. At New York Life, the Corporate Information Department headed by CIO Eileen Slevin is running several pilots on social networking within the IT organization. The groups will study this technology and prepare a proposal on how it can be used throughout the company. When Slevin is confident the technology is ready, New York Life may extend social networking to its external customers.

Slevin acknowledges that there hasn’t been a lot done with social networking on the enterprise level, but she predicts this technology is going to be “groundbreaking” and “huge as a business tool.” (See “Bringing Innovation to Insurance”)

Del Monte is even further along, reaching out to its customers with two existing social nets and a third on the way. The targeted audiences for these communities were chosen very carefully: people who are passionate about dogs (“I Love My Dog”) and children (“Moms Online Community”). The soon-to-be-added “I Love My Cat” network is aimed at an equally ardent group of Del Monte customers.

Walter Wdowiak, Del Monte’s vice president of marketing services, explains the purpose of these communities: to “help us get much closer to consumers” and “to identify the most pressing issues for customers and understand topical matters that factor into buying decisions.” (See “Del Monte Gets Social”)

Of course, not all companies have customers who are equally enthusiastic about their products. So it’s up to the marketing experts to find out what their customers really care about. For technology companies, that might involve a community for tech enthusiasts that offers the latest research on prototype products. For businesses like New York Life, customers might want family-focused materials—not just information about protecting your family with insurance, but information that can help you plan for your kids’ educations, find social services for elderly parents or get help for your troubled teen.

Companies starting social networks have different customers, products and goals, but if they want to attract people to their communities, they need to appeal to the heart, as well as the head. After all, we’re inundated with information about the things we need to know to do our jobs and live our lives. To get your customers’ attention amid this tsunami of information, you also need to focus on what they want to know and what they are most passionate about—whether that’s children, jobs, homes, cars, high-tech devices, sports, travel or books.

Is your organization considering implementing a social network—or does it have one already? Do you belong to any community sites? If so, what do they offer that makes them worth your time? And, would you be interested in joining a Baseline social network?

I want to know what you think about the social networking phenomenon, so please send me your thoughts.

Eileen Feretic is the Editor of Baseline Magazine.

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