Love it or hate it, Facebook and other social media are here and they’re changing the online habits of your employees and customers. It would be churlish to dismiss social media as a fad with no impact on your organisation other than being a tool for employees to squander their billable time; at the same time, Facebook is not going to propel your company into an early listing just because it has the undivided attention of tens of millions of users. Right about now, you have a IT policy in place regarding use of social media or are undecided about what action to take.
Time to take a step back and do a business case on this phenomenon. The purpose of this article is for you to realise what lessons and habits your employees and online customers have learned in the last few months while being introduced to social media. Consider these , and then discuss them within your own organisations. Don’t be stuck on Facebook, your employees are probably using other Web 2.0, or social media, applications on an hourly basis.
1 Web publishing is simple
Ten years ago the message was “anyone can publish a web page. Learn a little HTML, some Photoshop, some odds and ends about HTTP and web hosting and there you go!”. This spawned a cottage industry of web designers and web design courses, but lets face it: it required a steep learning curve in languages and standards that were changing every few months.
Blogs are far easier to set up, but people from non-creative industries or non-media types have to think long and hard about design, posting, commenting and plug-ins. Its no surprise that most blogs reference “web 2.0″ or “social media”. While blogging is a tsunami, it doesn’t get everyone publishing.
Enter Facebook. A simple setup process, no level design playing field, click-n-play plugins and publishing in a manner more similar to text or instant messaging than email or word processing.
The business case: employees will finally be able to take short cuts and ask questions like: wouldn’t it be simpler to put this online? Can’t we create a mash up of our sales figures and geographical areas like the travel apps in Facebook? (The answer to both is Yes).
2 Facebook is a start page
Enterprise applications like SAP and Microsoft Sharepoint allow one to set personalised home pages on their intranet start pages or as their default browser pages. Facebook is similar, except the information on it is mostly of a personal nature.
The business case: you may want to consider pulling Facebook’s notifications as an RSS feed into your existing employees’ start pages. In that way they can keep abreast of friend’s movements at a glance from within their business application. This may sound abhorrent to some policy makers, but ask your IT to do a test implementation for you and you’ll see how innocuous it is. Will it keep employees of the phone and emailing? I don’t know the answer to that question, but consider this option if you don’t want to ban Facebook outright.
3 Social networking online
When you send your sales, marketing and client service to a conference, do you exhort them to network their buns off? Probably not in as many words, but that’s what you want. Surely your enterprising employees will use online social networks to initiate joint partnerships or get valuable information, perhaps even to disseminate your company news in this channel (for free). If you manage IT staff you would be foolish to discourage them from joining sites like Experts Exchange, Slashdot or Tech Republic. When they hit a coding snag they can submit the question online or nose around the forums for the answer, rather than spend two days trying to reinvent the wheel.
Facebook has most likely informed your employees about how to leverage their social network (even though some will only use Facebook to organise parties and send chain mail!)
The business case: Social networking online is a way to make customers gather around product (Amazon), supply you with invaluable ideas (Dell Ideastorm) and engage with approved demographically-selected profiles (eons).
4 Naked communication
A person’s personality comes through on Facebook more so than in any other medium. Those who boast offline, boat on Facebook. Those who sent chain letters with Hello Kitty drawings at age 8 do the same on Facebook at a more advanced age. That is the power of the medium, people manage not only their relationships but their personas through it. This naked communication builds stronger online and offline relationships.
The business case: like Amazon’s recommendations, Digg’s articles and del.icio.us bookmarks, users trust content generated by their peers, known or unknown, more than what businesses tell them to believe. This is evidenced in Facebook and other social media, and your business ought to have a strategy in place to interact and monitor this channel.
Can a 22 year-old be friends with a multinational car manufacturing corporation? Can Barack Obama be friends with thousands of potential voters? In Facebook you can. You can even have stronger relationships with entities than with friends you see every weekend for dinner. It may be a perversion of the concept of friendship, but its the term we’re saddled with when we try and explain these relationships. Users and customers can be friends with your brand, usually around a competition, cause or campaign. This is free permission marketing, are you still complaining?
The business case: we learned that people trust the official line when published in a blog format more so than when it comes as a press release off the wires. In the same way, an intranet modified into more of a social network, a customer care section of your website or a graduate recruitment site will benefit from bringing your brand to the level of peer rather than patriarch.
6 Always-on culture
Generally speaking, the last two generations in the workplace don’t like the commitment of formal telephone calls. They weren’t taught telephone etiquette and the concept of “taking a message” is beyond them. Sometimes one uses a SMS or IM message as a status checker: are you in? can you make it? The pressure is taken off having to tell a white lie, which is not as easy when speaking to someone in real time over the telephone.
Facebook’s status updates allow you to mention in a brief, pithy manner about your whereabouts, mood and recent events in your life. Friends are notified immediately, and will act thereupon by contacting you directly, leaving you alone, or not bothering to schedule a meeting for you as you have stated that you’re ill or on leave.
The business case: Churches are increasingly blogging their sermons to their communities. Some people just don’t want to attend church but they want the information, much like workers who hate meetings but want to participate in the project nonetheless. What if your board gave brief updates to the other members or subordinates in a secure environment once a day? They could pass on critical leads or thoughts that others could action or research the merits thereof. Teams could get rapid updates rather than gathering in time-consuming meetings, analysts could offer rapid assessments of stock and send out to subscribers in all the various formats.
When getting approval from a client around some material or dealing with a supplier, you’ll find IM is faster than email. You can store the conversations for later reference. The stand out in this area is Rackspace, the hosting provider. After spending a few minutes on their site, a window pops up with a sales assistant asking if you need help. You can then ask questions and answers to them, with audio or simply through the IM interface.
7 The Internet is a raw document repository
Google taught us that you can find anything online. Wikipedia taught us that information about everything can be found online. Facebook taught us that anyone you would want to find is probably online. This is a simplification, as others have identified class differences between MySpace and Facebook, not to mention those who are not even online. If you are reading this, however, and can identify with the issues, then you know that your kindergarten playmates or high school sweethearts are a click away from discovery.
The business case: managers tried to block the internet and they tried to block IM. That was until they realised the benefits for productivity and communication inherent in both. Facebook and other social networks may have business applications that are not immediately apparent.
I believe microblogging will be the preferred communication method of the near future. The current providers allow one to text, IM, email, blog or phone updates to your personal blog. The updates are then disseminated by notifications like RSS, email, IM, text etc. Publishing and dissemination are therefore combined in one medium through many devices, something which standard websites and phones cannot replicate. This is where Enterprise 2.0 will be focussing its attention right now.
The status updates of Facebook and the wall posts as well as the notifications of your friends are just as in microblogging.
The business case: microblogging allows for sending and receiving key updates through all technical devices. Project updates or urgent information release (See the LA Fire Department’s microblog) are native to microblogs.
Sure, Facebook is also a fad. Remember at school you had fads like marbles, collecting cards, hairstyles and clothes styles? They were great, then the powers-that-were moved on them and banned them. The fad usually went underground and the fad mutated into a cult. Feelings against the school management were probably soured for a while. Things may or may have not been written on lavatory walls. Tongues in cheek aside, the same is happening in corporates world-wide.
The business case: everything in social media is, for the corporate, a threat and an opportunity. What usually tips the scale into the overall positive side is that everything is measurable. People can blog about you, but you can blog about yourself and respond to them too. And you can track when somebody mentions you in a blog post. The same principle applies to Facebook and other social media.
10 Knowledge gathering
Since employees have been given internet access to perform their tasks better, they have usually been updated with links and jokes and websites and now Facebook. They’ve been exposed to more disparate information and interest groups than they would probably have found in that evening’s newspapers. This is a part of the great tradition of the Enlightenment, and as mentioned above, they will place worth in content not only coming from the traditional news sources.
The business case: if you are in a creative field, I would suggest giving employees limited or unlimited internet access, underpinned with a performance contract. I would also set aside two hours for a meeting at the end of the week where everyone has to report on what they found online that could contribute to the business aims of the organisation. A reward of more access could be considered? Then your internet and bandwidth can be assessed as a valid business tool, and you and your employees will be reaping the benefits that social media is infusing into our traditional media channels.
Corporations have had to react to the phenomenon, ranging from banning use of Facebook outright, through to limiting use thereof to the marketing departments, to creating an official presence on Facebook and tying the company profile into graduate recruitment and news dissemination.
Don’t base your Facebook decision on appearing cool to your employees or external stakeholders. Rather look at the points made above, distribute to staff and convene an open discussion with their own points of view. You could see financial or productivity rewards, or perhaps you may only establish a better dialogue with staff and your customer base.
Remember, this is social media. A top-down approach to information distribution usually lands bottoms up.