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Opinion: Using MySpace and Facebook as business tools

As they mature, they're emerging as important new tools for companies and employees

By Julie Sartain
May 23, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The personal benefits of the social networks of and Facebook Inc. are well-known, but how well do they serve employees looking to enhance their careers or businesses who drool over the vast new pool of potential customers?

According to Michael Greene, research analyst at JupiterResearch, social networks such as Facebook and MySpace can be powerful marketing platforms. "MySpace has already become a must-use platform for entertainment marketers looking to connect with young and highly engaged audiences," he said. "And Facebook offers an array of options for marketers through its 'Pages' function and its applications platform." (For more information on Facebook, read "A newbie's guide to Facebook.")

Every Friday, employees are given an hour of Facebook time to connect and socialize with co-workers, customers, family and friends.

Greene noted that the key for companies planning to use these sites to market their products and services is not only to use ads to "push" messages to consumers, but also to create engaging social environments that enable communication and self-expression.

And the benefits go beyond marketing, as rank-and-file workers use social networks to keep in touch with others. "Companies such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have thousands of employees who use these tools to share and connect with their networks, for both personal and business-related purposes," said Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

Facebook Fridays

Some companies have embraced the social networking trend even more. Owyang said Serena Software Inc. in San Mateo, Calif., encourages its employees to share information online, connect with customers, and engage in dialogue and conversation. For example, the company recently announced a new corporate benefit called "Facebook Fridays" to its 800 employees across 18 countries. Every Friday, employees are given an hour of Facebook time to connect and socialize with co-workers, customers, family and friends. Owyang said, "For companies like Serena and others, the intranet has clearly moved outside of the firewall."

Lee Aase, manager of Syndication and Social Media at the Mayo Clinic and chancellor of Social Media University, Global noted that Facebook is the perfect "collaboration network" because it allows businesses to create unlimited numbers of free groups. These can be open (anyone can join), closed (by invitation only) or secret (where their existence doesn't show on any profile).

Workers can collaborate on projects, keep up with company news, or communicate with external vendors and agencies without companies having to provide the employees or the external parties with virtual private network access behind the corporate firewall. This is especially important to small and midsize businesses, which may not have the resources to provide VPNs to their employees and customers.

Not getting onboard

But some companies just don't get it. Aase compared these new opportunities for businesses to the adoption of early fax technology around 1990. Companies could suddenly receive customer purchase orders by fax instead of FedEx, a huge savings in time and dollars, and well worth the cost of the machine and the monthly charges for the additional phone lines.

If AT&T had offered all this for free, would anyone have declined? he asked. "Social networking sites like Facebook are a much more advanced communications phenomenon than the fax, but not only are many businesses failing to take advantage of these free communication services; some actively block employees from using social networks," Aase said.

He explained that in the sites' directory listings, a company can establish its own free "fan" page, complete with links to its Web site, photos, videos, and contact information to key employees or salespeople for all its customers to view. It's like a supercharged, multimedia Yellow Pages ad, but it's in a global telephone directory -- not just the local volume for one city -- and it's free.

Facebook and MySpace combined have a potential customer base of about 170 million consumers, and businesses can promote their products and services through these sites' free profile pages, bulletin boards, groups, events, forums, blogs and other features.

Recruitment advantage

And social networks can also be great recruitment tools. "With 85% of college students using Facebook," Aase said, "employee recruitment with job announcements targeted to students at select colleges with specific degrees can provide companies with a significant advantage over competitors searching for similar talent."

In a nutshell, social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook can expand the networking and marketing potential of any company. (And don't forget LinkedIn Corp., whose networking site has always been known for its business orientation. For a comparison between LinkedIn and Facebook, read "Facebook vs. LinkedIn: Which is better for business?")

And these sites aren't alone in the new world of social networking platforms that can benefit businesses. Owyang said a new breed of application providers has emerged, called "white-label social networks" that allow companies to create their own versions of Facebook, for example, that are custom-branded any way they want for their customers or employees. This opens a whole new marketing and advertising platform for businesses.

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