Leveraging the social web in business

Facebook might be the giant in the social network space but no-one believes that will last for long, in fact some industry observers suggest that it’s living on borrowed time as it fails to address mobile, privacy and advertising. No-one is expecting to implode but it’s difficult to ignore the problems it is having with it’s business model when compared to Twitter, the new darling of the social web. It’s also universally failed to make the move into business.

NextDoor.comGeneration Z is growing up and some regard Facebook as being for old people and seek alternative platforms. This list is getting longer by the day, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr, Path and a 100 new start-ups every week. Vertical-social is on the rise and offers a more social experience.

Take NextDoor, for example, it focusses on the needs of communities and is making strides to create a useful social network (how useful is Facebook?) with local advertising, information and help. It’s at a grass-roots level and that’s how social should be, the status updates are all very relevant (“major accident on I95, stay away”).

Unashamedly looking like Facebook and taking the best of the UI has sped-up adoption by easing the learning curve.

However, when you’ve satisfied your social needs you don’t want to be checking in to 100+ sites every day, nor do you want 25 notifications every hour for the smallest update. This is where “aggregation” comes in.

Notwithstanding Google’s odd decision to kill Google Reader, there are a wide range of aggregator services and applications available that gather together all your social world into a single place for you to manage and peruse. If you’re an iPad or iPhone owner you’ve no doubt come across Flipboard, a simple and elegant way to bring together your social feeds. So successfully have they done this that I never go onto Facebook.com.

Good aggregators remove the feeling of being locked-in to a single network. You can happily share your obsession with model trains in a private space at the same time as engage in more general subjects such as technology in others. Mashing together the content does requires investment of time (and a little learning) to both set it up and also manage where and what content you want – I feel this is good, it encourages you to seek out relevant content and share it with your networks.

Where does that leaves business?

It’s gotten a little tricky as the  Facebook land-grab by businesses yielded poor financial return. Organisations used to measure engagement by the number of followers/re-tweets/likes and a whole eco-system of suppliers and product has been built up to service this. However, in a fragmented social web, opportunities have appeared to create their own networks without resorting to well-worn Facebook path.

This is not new, in the early noughties, forward-thinking companies created communities via forums often in a “build it and they will come” manner. For many, these were successful in building powerful communities of like-minded folks coalescing around a common topic. These communities were often self supporting so, too frequently, the evolution was left to a handful of unpaid advocates and staffers. With the emergence of Facebook (and twitter) these older communities were often left to stagnate. Their death was self-fulfilling on lack of engagement, no investment and a plain-old “don’t care” attitude. They weren’t trendy, shame.

Recently, we seen the rise of credible social frameworks such as Ning, Social Engine, BuddyPress, Grou.ps and Moosocial. Offering a new angle on forum-based communities they tick all the boxes consumers require; ease of use, interface familiarity, privacy and mobile-optimised. Getting started in the private social web has never been simpler. Tread lightly though, not all that glitters is gold and there have been some failures, notably Diaspora and there is omnipresent risk of new kids being bought and closed-down.

One of the big drivers of [social web] adoption has come from businesses moving to using enterprise social networks. The C-level is realising employee empowerment, freedom, passion and fun creates a stronger bottom-line and his means a whole new set of tools and frameworks for collaboration, sharing and communication. Products such as Bloomfire, Podio and Yammer are re-writing the rules of co-working – there are issues and whilst I would agree with in part most are dealt with by adopting a culture that wants to embrace the value and a clear purpose, well communicated.”

With the space largely unoccupied, the opportunities to connect at a social level with customers is huge. First-mover tag carries a lot of weight as it represents, to the consumer, a sea-change in attitude even if it’s not (caution: just paying lip service will soon be exposed). Don’t expect it to be an easy ride, you’ll need to be brave and happy making a mistake or two – I’d not want to tread this path until you have a powerful champion to walk with you.

Want to get started? Below is a useful checklist to get you going.

Customer Listening – follow what your customers and saying online and respond, personally and in an open manner. Twitter is the big hero here as good (and bad) news travels very quickly across the blogosphere – RedBull got it wrong.

Private Communities – “build it and they will come” – maybe mis-quoted but a well run, fair and transparent community will create loyalty and also be a source of raw material to mine for products, ideas and services. Lady Gaga created “Little Monsters” with Backplane in Spring 2012 and now has 1m unique monthly users.

Social-channel Feedback – Initial steps are pretty straightforward, asking your customers to rate content, email, customer-service. Encourage comments on web-pages, send emails requesting anonymous feedback on quality of customer service. Listen, adapt and re-ask. Great applications to consider include DisqusGet Satisfaction and Zendesk if you’re considering this as part of a larger re-think of customer services.

Crowdsourced Content – Business messaging is defined in endless meetings, agency briefings, ad pitches and PR lunches. Sometimes it involves real people (=customers) but all too often that’s in sterile environment of focus groups and user testing. Ask customers to contribute directly on content, Wikipedia does this rather well – so well they managed to kill Encyclopaedia Britannica’s 240 year-old business model!

About Connected

Founded in 1996, we live in the cloud – Connected started building private communities at the turn of the century, establishing many industry firsts around open framework communities and forums. In 2007, Connected embraced collaboration with early-adopter tools such as Basecamp and Ning. Today, we specialise in providing forward-thinking strategies and deployment for innovative companies. We eat what we cook and use Podio, Zendesk, Social Engine, Git, Disqus, Zemanta and Google Apps for collaboration, communication, sales, marketing and content creation.

By Martin Dower