The way businesses communicate with their customers, their partners and their employees is changing. Email has been the de facto communication tool for business, but the rise of social networking has made the inadequacies of email increasingly apparent. This is the second in a three part series examining the strengths and weaknesses of email, how social networking both inside and outside the company is improving the efficiency of business communication, and some of the challenges we face along the way.

Does your company have a presence on at least one of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or LinkedIn? If the answer is “no”, then maybe you have a good reason for this, but you are in an ever-decreasing minority, probably less than one in twenty.

Social media has changed the way businesses communicate with their customers, but it has done little to change the way people within companies communicate with each other, and with other businesses. The term “social business” means so many different things to different people that this distinction is often overlooked. Many companies establish a presence on social media sites and congratulate themselves for becoming “social businesses”, whereas the reality is that inside the company it’s the same old email-driven business-as-usual.

Consumer-focused social networks do have a significant role to play in modern business communication, but it is important that we understand the strengths and weaknesses of each type of network if we are to use them effectively.

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and YouTube are primarily business-to-consumer and consumer-to-consumer networks. With 1 billion active users on Facebook and 300 million on Twitter, these networks offer immense reach and are a great place to make contact with customers and prospects. But they’re not great places to have deeper, more productive discussions with customers. So in many cases the company’s social media presence should be accompanied by their own community that they use for more meaningful customer engagement.

Consumer social networks are even less suitable places for internal company communication.
The idea of creating a private Facebook group for employees to discuss work issues may initially sound appealing - employees are probably already on Facebook, and it might give the impression that management “get” social media. But Facebook is fundamentally not designed for business communication - it provides little ability to categorize or search for information, and fairly poor data management capabilities. As a result, it is of little use for “real work” and is only suitable for office chatter and trivialities, delivering very little business value.

Most social business experts would probably be surprised that the idea of using Facebook for internal communication is even considered. But a recent survey suggested that 74% of companies were doing precisely that. This is an astonishing statistic that I find hard to believe; I suspect it is another example of confusion caused by the terminology about social business rather than a true reflection of where internal business communication takes place.

This confusion highlights the need to recognize that there are three distinct types of social networks. An integrated social business strategy uses all three to improve communications with different groups of people.
1. Public social networks like Facebook and Twitter - good for making contact with customers and prospects, less good for deeper discussions.
2. Customer communities - for deeper customer engagement. These can be characterized as “social extranets”, and also include private business-to-business networks for communication with partners and B2B customers.
3. Employee networks - for internal company communication. These can be characterized as “social intranets”.

Of the prominent public social networks, the hardest to categorize is LinkedIn. It is sometimes described as a business-to-business network, but it really isn’t. It is a network of professionals who work for businesses, but is a person-to-person network rather than business-to-business. Cynics might describe it a recruitment site or glorified address book, and a large percentage of the 225 million active users use it like that. But there are clear signs of aspirations from LinkedIn to become a more useful business tool, enabling companies to promote their products, and sales people to find customers. Even so, as an environment for employee or B2B collaboration, it suffers from the same problems as Facebook - an over-simplistic environment for real work. So LinkedIn is best considered in the first category - a business-focused public social network that is good for making contact, but not so good for deeper collaboration.

Of the three types of network, it is internal employee networks that businesses have made least progress in deploying, despite research showing that these offer the greatest potential business value. In the next article we will examine the reasons for this.

 

By Richard Hughes, author of Business Communication Revolution, and Director of Social Strategy at BroadVision.

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