Web 2.0 tools like Twitter, Facebook can foster growth in hard times

But analysts warn that companies should be prepared for potential online user attacks.

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"It's two-way communication, and you have to be able to take the heat that may come your way," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc. in Beaverton, Ore. "It isn't for everyone. Some companies will have a hard time dealing with it, while others will thrive."

Olds said that any company using Web 2.0 tools will inevitably face strong, and potentially embarrassing, criticism. "No company is perfect, and some customers will complain about anything," he said. "That's why some companies are still cautious about engaging with social networks."

Olds also noted that it's important for businesses to find the right voice or tone for their social networking personas. For example, Dell Inc. uses sites like Twitter to blast out information about sales and coupons, while Zappos.com is all about letting customers get to know its employees, he said.

"You have to make sure that you're presenting the right image for your company and doing it in the right way," he said. "A whimsical and funny approach will work for Apple and many other companies, but not so well for, say, Dow Chemical. It takes a lot of thought and careful consideration."

Olds also suggested that companies establish a clear goal for their social networking strategies -- and he said they shouldn't expect users to automatically embrace them. "A bank that focuses on its interest-bearing checking accounts will be less interesting than a bank CEO who provides straight talk on the economy. The critical thing is to understand your goals and present an image consistent with your company," he said.

"I see this whole social networking phenomenon not as truly a purely technical phenomenon, but as a change in the values of the organization," said Soumitra Dutta, the Roland Berger Chaired Professor of Business and Technology at INSEAD, an international business school in Fontainebleau, France.

"CEOs are becoming more open to new ideas from employees and customers they haven't normally interacted with," Dutta said. "Traditionally, companies have looked at customer relationship management as a one-to-one issue. Today, we're seeing that customers talk to each other and not just directly to the company."

Thus, businesses must move in to try to actively manage their relationships with these communities and respond to positive and negative feedback, he added.

A growing number of businesses are creating such communities to bring together groups of people who all love the same thing, whether it's a certain pair of sneakers, a car model or a mainframe computer.

For example, just over a year ago, IBM created a Facebook page for people interested in news and information about its System z mainframe computer offerings. Launched in December 2007, the page now counts more than 700 friends. And, IBM notes, that's a lot of friends for a computer that isn't the newest or sexiest around today.

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