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Has the corporate world hopped onto the social networking bandwagon? And more importantly, why should it?

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Every man and his dog, or cats (I kid you not) has a blog, or a Facebook page, or a Twitter account, or all of the above and then some. Quite frankly, if you're not online, you don't exist, dahling... Or so some commentators would have us believe.

Living life online in real-time has its benefits, for consumers and corporates alike. But let's not get carried away here. Like everything in life, social networking is not for everyone.

First stop - business case

And like everything in IT, the first step is establishing the business case. Before that, however, you have to get a handle on what, exactly, this social networking stuff is.

Says Puruma Communications MD Ingrid Lotze: “It's the same old stuff, just with different names. Seeding, hives, activators - it's old-fashioned segmentation and CRM. We believe it is just about business, and just another tool business can use to get closer to its customers.”

Hello World Agency group media director Pedro van Gaalen agrees: “Never before have corporates had such a direct line to their customers. The one-on-one aspect is key. Companies can build relationships with their customers, find out what they are saying about them and react in real-time, which means monitoring social networking is going to be a 24x7 job. Customers are out there shaping perceptions of the company in their networks, it is important for corporates to be there to ensure they deliver the right information and how they want to be perceived in the market.”

“A quantum shift has taken place in the way brands have to deal with customers. Companies can no longer keep them at arm's length,” Lotze's business partner, Puruma director of common sense, Gavin Moffat, adds. “Companies have to be involved and they're realising this at board level. They're looking at how they engage customers and how they can use this as a competitive advantage. That's pertinent in the middle of a recession.”

In and out

Social networking is relevant as more than just a tool to interact with customers, however. Says Graylink head Mark Gray: “Social networking offers faster, cheaper and more effective communication, networking and collaboration, especially when it comes to recruitment. Compared with the cost of newspaper recruitment classifieds, social networking sites are much cheaper to push out information about a company. Easily segmentable groups of very active audiences on these sites make it easier to reach the right people than the untargeted approach of newspaper advertising. Additionally, the neutral environment social networks provide to share information makes it much easier for companies to start conversations with top candidates, as they don't feel they're being sold to.”

Never before have corporates had such a direct line to their customers.

Pedro van Gaalen, group media director, Hello World Agency

And then there's the cost benefit. “The cost is significantly less than what a recruitment agency charges, typically 15% to 25% of a candidate's first annual package,” he states.

Integr8 IT joint-MD Robert Sussman concurs: “The future workforce exists in the world of social networking. That is where the talent lies and where people are meeting, networking and trading, not just in terms of transactions but in terms of their personal lives, family business and so on.”

Sussman says his company encourages staff to use Facebook, and that executives make a point of connecting to staff, sending birthday wishes and taking advantage of all of the benefits social networking brings.

The future workforce exists in the world of social networking.

Robert Sussman, joint-MD, Integr8

There is a downside to Facebook, as Sussman notes. “One of the big concerns is that companies set up company groups, which anyone can join and use to see who works where, how long they've been there, what they do, what their culture is and how they interact with colleagues. It's a hunting ground for recruiters.”

Sussman admits his company uses it to headhunt staff. And Graylink's Gray offers a case in point - his company has been using digital means, now including social media, to recruit on behalf of its clients for years.

This is one of the reasons many companies don't want to give staff access to sites like LinkedIn, a business networking site, for example.

Pros and cons

“There's no right or wrong answer here, because each corporate is unique,” notes Cosmedia founder and head Gino Cosme. “The traditional viewpoint is that employees don't need access to these tools and platforms unless they can demonstrate that said access helps them carry out their jobs. This, of course, is particularly relevant for employees involved in the communications vertical (being aware of what is out there and how it applies to one's own business, for example). On the other side, there are those who believe that because social networking is a large part of what society has become, banning it would be like banning e-mail. The big question is more around identifying the corporate and employee culture.”

Many commentators, including Sussman and Van Galen (quoted above), feel banning access to social networking sites is akin to banning access to e-mail.

States Social Media manager Alistair Fairweather: “People use the telephone for personal reasons at least 10% of the time. Does that mean we should take the phone away? No. Obviously companies need to put a system in place to monitor usage, and accept that there will be some wastage. But this is outweighed by the fact that telephone costs drop annually, while staff satisfaction and morale goes up because they have access.

“Not letting staff use sites like Facebook forces them to use the phone or SMS, both of which are less efficient and waste more time. And then there are other aspects - juniors, for example, who live in the social media space, pick up on trends, feedback from customers and information on how people feel about the brand they work for all the time. You go into meetings and they say stuff you've never heard of because they are scanning the ether every day, which older staff are not. And it's not just marketing staff either.”

As Cosme notes, though, it's a question of culture. “There's a trend towards offering limited access to social networking, which meets employees and business viewpoints halfway. So, for example, making it available after work hours, within limited bandwidth restrictions, etc. This allows employees to take accountability for their time while at the same time being able to have access to these tools. Banning it completely because of preconceived decisions that there is no value or benefit is not, in my view, the answer. The truth of the matter is that if your employees are not able to manage their time and deliver on their KPIs, then it's not necessarily a social networking issue, but rather an employee's work ethic or HR issue.

“The important thing here is to identify the risks involved in whichever option,” he states. “The obvious one is that using a work computer with a corporate IP address immediately puts the corporate in the public space, and anything employees do and say on social networking sites can be associated and linked to the company. Furthermore, employees who engage with each other in a public setting can unintentionally make private, internal issues public. These are just two examples, of course. Companies must just be aware of these and put things in place to best protect not only corporate identity but also employees themselves.”

Short version of a long story? What you decide to do about social networking depends on what you, as a corporate, can derive business benefit from. Don't get left behind, however. Online is where it is at, from future talent and future business. The longer you wait, the further behind you risk falling, and in the current real-time economy, you can fall pretty far, pretty fast.

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