MySpace for grown-ups

Companies, nonprofits look for social networks to boost bottom-line results

Portland Trailblazers fans are using a new social networking Web site set up last week by the team to join together and lobby the National Basketball Association to add Trailblazers power forward Zach Randolph to the lineup for Sunday's NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas.

The Portland team is considering whether to use the new site to encourage fans to join forces to promote the team's Brandon Roy to be the professional basketball league's rookie of the year, said Art Sasse, Trailblazers' vice president of communications.

The NBA team joins a growing number of businesses that are embracing Web 2.0 tools like blogs, wikis and podcasts to create social networks where customers, partners and others can add content and create virtual communities of interest.

While such social networks first gained popularity among users of sites like MySpace and YouTube, businesses are now turning to the technology to boost their brand appeal and sales while gathering feedback that can be used in new product development efforts. In addition to the Trailblazers, companies like General Motors Corp. and Procter & Gamble have launched new social networks in the last two weeks for the Pontiac automobile line and Old Spice products, respectively.

The Trailblazers site, which signed up 2,500 registered users in its first three business days, was launched as a vehicle to help management communicate with the team's fans, Sasse said. He noted that its earlier strategy of reaching fans by e-mail has faltered recently as messages are left unopened.

Using Web 2.0 technology to link fans in specific parts of the city, the site "drives the drum beat of awareness, and [users] start coming to more games," he added. "It is a chance for us to see where the fans are headed rather than try to move them there," Sasse said. "It is a good, old-fashioned, grass-roots organization. The more authentic the connection, the more powerful that connection is."

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) last month launched a new partnership with Squidoo LLC, which allows pet lovers to quickly build personal Web pages on the ASPCA site that can point to blogs, RSS feeds, Flickr photos, Google maps and other destinations, said Jo Sullivan, ASPCA's senior vice president of development and communications. 

Each Web site earns a royalty from the page's advertisements from Google Inc. and others; users can opt to keep the money or donate it to the ASPCA. While the organization has not seen any financial gains yet, more than 500 of these sites have been created, Sullivan said. The organization, which already has blogs on its page, plans this year to add daily text messages for its users and podcasts, she noted.

"It is a great opportunity for donors who may not be expressing their love of animals on MySpace or YouTube to be expressive," she said. "It is a great elevation of brand."

However, she noted, the move has not been without its challenges for the organization. Embracing the Web 2.0 tools has required that the ASPCA restructure portions of its organization to create a development deal with technology and branding expertise, she said. Within the past six months, the organization married the technology team responsible for updating content and identifying emerging Web 2.0 tools with a communications team that focuses on using the Web as a marketing tool, Sullivan said. this year launched a new site called Experience Finder geared toward providing users more information to help them choose a travel destination, said Troy Whitsett, vice president of design at Southlake, Texas-based Travelocity. In addition to adding rich media content like videos to the site, Travelocity plans to integrate content from its subsidiary, a social networking site that allow travelers to post travel stories and tips to blogs, share photos from trips, and provide recommendations for hotels and activities, Whitsett added.

"Having others who are unbiased providing their feedback is very important," he said. "The customer wants to hear from other people like themselves."

Second Life for college classrooms

Eric Kunnen, coordinator of instructional technologies for Grand Rapids Community College in Grand Rapids, Mich., noted that the college has implemented several Web 2.0 tools like social bookmarking and customized instant messaging for students.

The college is also evaluating whether it should use Web 2.0 technology to create a virtual world similar to the popular Second Life online society for various classroom scenarios like virtual field trips, he said. "We're trying to figure out what are those social networking and Web 2.0 applications that we can take advantage of that students are already engaging in and put an academic focus on them," he said.

In January, the school began using Blackboard Scholar, a social bookmarking site from Blackboard Inc. that allows students to tag and share bookmarks. In addition, instructors can tag pages that supplement specific courses, Kunnen added.

In November, the college began offering instant messaging software called Pronto from New York-based Horizon Wimba to all students. The IM tool is integrated with the college's course management system. When students log onto Pronto, they are shown only contacts who are in their classes, Kunnen said.

F5 Networks Inc., a Seattle-based maker of tools that can ensure the security and availability of network applications, has been building out a social network over the past 15 months, said Jeff Browning, F5's director of product management. The site has more than 13,000 technical users from various sections of IT departments, including applications, systems and networking, he said.

The site, called DevCentral, offers blogs, forums, wikis and video syndicated into RSS feeds that generate valuable feedback for F5 about its products, Browning said. "[DevCentral] helps reduce our risk in our development efforts," he said. "It is a real-time feedback mechanism to make sure we are solving the problems the customers are interested in solving."

But social networks can create new challenges for organizations, as the campaign for former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) discovered last week when one of its campaign bloggers came under fire for blog postings that were labeled as anti-Catholic. The blogger resigned on Monday.

MacDonnell Ulsch, director of technology risk management and privacy at Jefferson Wells Inc., a Boston-based consulting firm, cautioned that many companies are rushing to use Web 2.0 technologies like blogs without adequately assessing the risks. For example, employees could inadvertently post confidential company information on blogs or an employee could give out information about the company that could be used by a hacker to socially engineer his way into a company's IT systems, he said.

"Companies are scaling the technologies among the workforce without understanding the risk or the legal implications," he said. "What do you really gain if you improve your business processes if in doing that you actually create more risk?"

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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