What is Social Networking, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published in Small Business Computing, April 7, 2009)

Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Huzitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month Laurie looks at Social Networking.

What is Social Networking?

Social networking, also referred to as social media, encompasses many Internet-based tools that make it easier for people to listen, interact, engage and collaborate with each other. Social networking platforms such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, message boards, Wikipedia and countless others are catching on like wildfire.

People use social networking to share recipes, photos, ideas and to keep friends updated on our lives. In many cases, you can use social networking tools from mobile devices, such as Blackberries and iPhones, as easily as from a PC or Mac.

By its very nature, social networking is interactive. You can tell anyone (that you want to talk to, and that wants to listen to you) anything about your opinions and experiences—and vice versa–through blogs, Facebook pages, videos and even 140 character messages called tweets. You can also build communities based on common interests, causes and concerns.

While we don’t have room to discuss all of the social networking sites, here’s a sampler to help you get your head around today’s most popular social networking tools:

    * Blogs are sites that people set up to provide information and opinions about events, ideas or anything else they want to discuss. Blogs can include links to other related sites, photos, videos and sound as well as text. The number of bloggers is growing exponentially; eMarketer estimates that in 2007 there were almost 23 million U.S. bloggers and more than 94 million blog readers.

    * Twitter is a micro-blogging site. Twitter members post text messages called “tweets” of 140 characters or less, using either a computer or a cell phone. Other Twitter users can “follow”” your posts, but you can decide if you want to let them follow you or not. Compete.com, a Web-traffic analysis service, says that Twitter had 6 million unique visits in February 2009.

    * Facebook is a social networking site where you can set up a profile, join different communities, and connect with friends. More than 175 million people currently use Facebook—and the fastest growing demographic is people over the age of 35.

    * LinkedIn is a social networking site with about 38 million members. While it shares a lot of the same features and capabilities you’ll find on Facebook, LinkedIn focuses specifically on helping people build career and business communities.

    * Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Articles provide links to related information. In 2008, Wikipedia had 684 million visitors, and 75,000 contributors working on more than 10 million articles.

    * YouTube is a site to share and watch videos. Anyone can record a video and then upload and share it via the YouTube site. Everyone can watch the videos on YouTube.  In January, The U.S. Congress and YouTube announced the launch of official Congressional YouTube channels, which gives each member of the House and Senate the opportunity to create his or her own YouTube channel.  

The world of blogs, tweets and wikis can be confusing for many people. Even if you are comfortable using Facebook, YouTube and other services in your personal life, you may be wondering if social networking can be a useful tool for your business.

The answer is a resounding yes. Small businesses can use social networking for many practical purposes. You can use these tools (which are usually free) to locate experts and find information, pose questions and get answers. Thoughtful use of social networking services can help you move beyond conventional, one-way marketing, such as advertising, and tap into a more interactive marketing approach. For instance, you use social networking tools to:

    * Research ideas, and learn more about what customers and prospects are saying about their needs and experiences, and about your products and related areas.

    * Gain new market and competitive insights to improve your products and services.

    * Create and join conversations with customers, prospects, partners and other constituents about key issues and concerns.

    * Create positive word-of-mouth about your products and services.

    * Grow your company’s reputation as a thought leader. 

What to Consider

Navigating through the social media maze can be overwhelming at first. If you’re just starting out, remember you can start small. In fact, I’d recommend taking smaller steps first, before you tackle writing your own blog or creating an online community. Here are a couple of easy ways to get started.

    * Monitor relevant online conversations in social media. Tuning into online conversations can provide you with insights for marketing and new products and services. Google Blog Search and other tools can help you find relevant blogs, and you can set up an RSS reader, like Google Reader, to get content delivered to you automatically.

    * Join conversations. You don’t have to write you own blog—you can comment and respond or answer questions in other blog posts, or on Twitter. Follow the same rules of etiquette you’d use in the physical world—make your comments relevant, behave ethically and be authentic—and remember to identify yourself and your company.

    * Use relevant communities for market research. On LinkedIn, for instance, you can join relevant professional communities to discuss what’s going on in your industry and ask questions. Or try Facebook Polls to poll targeted Facebook users, based on demographic data. With this tool, you can field a single-question poll in a few minutes, and get responses from hundreds of people in less than hour. 

As you get more involved, you’ll learn as you go about the different types of social media, how other small businesses use them, and approaches you can use to launch your own online community, blog or YouTube video. So get in and join the conversation!

By Laurie McCabe
July 27, 2009
Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month Laurie looks at Unified Communications.
What is Unified Communications?
Most of us use several different tools and devices to communicate. At a minimum, you probably use a cell phone, a landline phone, fax and e-mail. Many of us also other tools as well, such as instant messaging, texting and Web conferencing.  Unified communications (UC) solutions incorporate these different modes of communications into one system.
Unified communication solutions take advantage of new technologies to integrate and streamline messages from many sources. For instance, a unified messaging system lets you access multiple phone lines, e-mail, fax and instant messaging from one place. These solutions break down communications barriers so that it’s easier and faster for you to find, reach and communicate with other people, and vice versa.
It’s important to remember that UC isn’t one tool, but a solution that pulls together all of the communication and collaboration tools that you’re already using (plus some new ones you may want to add) so you can communicate through a consistent interface and experience. For instance, with a UC solution, you give your customers just your office phone number, and calls to that number will also ring simultaneously on your cell phone.
UC solutions can integrate both non-real-time communications tools, such as traditional phone lines, e-mail, fax and voice-mail, with real-time communications tools such as instant messaging (IM) and Web conferencing. They can also incorporate many other communication tools, too, such as and voice over IP (VoIP) telephony solutions, text messaging, screen sharing and video conferencing—just to name a few. Many use presence awareness technology that locates where people to see if they’re available, (think IM buddy list).
Why Should You Care?
Whether you’re a sales person, a construction worker or an attorney, you’re likely to be on the go, or working from different locations throughout the week. UC solutions can help you get more done more quickly. They help you and stay connected to your co-workers and customers, whether you’re on the road, in the office or working from home.
Depending on where you are and what the situation requires, your preference for the device you use (cell phone, PDA, notebook desktop computer, fax machine) is likely to change, as is the mode of communicating (traditional phone service, IP telephony, cell phone, text message, IM, etc.).  Everyone else is in the same boat. So, while it’s nice to have all these handy tools, it’s a chore to remember different numbers, and to constantly check different services for messages.
UC can help you be more productive and save you time by letting you move seamlessly from one device and mode of communication to another. For example, using a UC solution, you could:
    * Have your calls follow you. For instance, say you dial into a conference call from your home phone at 6:00 a.m. When you walk out the door, the call transfers automatically to your cell phone—without interruption. When you get to the office, the call transfers to your office phone, which has the capability to also initiate a Web conference. 
    * Find people you need more quickly. Let’s say you and your sales manager both have busy schedules. You will both be in and out of the office in between sales calls. You’re in the last throes of negotiating a deal, and you need to get his buy-in on a discount—but you have no idea where he is.  A UC solutions tracks down your boss for you. It knows the phone number where your boss is located, and automatically forward the call to the phone line he can access. 
UC can also help you operate more flexibly and save money.  Say, for instance, you hire five more employees; the solution will easily accommodate remote workers. With a UC solution that includes IP telephony, it’s easy and fast to add new phone lines for new workers, wherever they’re located. Instead of having to move to a bigger office and pay higher rent, the new employees can work from home with just an Internet connection.
What to Consider
UC can be a confusing area to evaluate because different vendors design and build their solutions with different assortments of communications and collaboration tools. If you’re considering UC, start by putting together a list of communication pain points and problems that your company faces. Depending on the nature of your business, its size, and how people work, you may want very different capabilities than the business next door. You’ll also want to look for a solution that is flexible enough to let you add new capabilities as you need them.
The other area you’ll want to consider is how you want to deploy the solution. Companies such as Avaya, Cisco and many others sell UC solutions — designed specifically for small businesses — that package up systems, software and phones. IBM just announced that it will add a real-time communication version to its Lotus Foundations line, which is designed for small businesses that want one appliance to support communications and collaboration. Finally, vendors such as PanTerra provide software-as-a-service (SaaS) UC solutions through its partner channel. 

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