How businesses can get more from social networking

For all the talk of businesses embracing Web 2.0 and social software tools, most companies are still at the very early stages of adoption, says Jonathan Yarmis, an analyst at AMR Research who focuses on emerging technologies. In his latest research note on companies taking their first step into social media, he says that companies must avoid the "Kumbaya Zone" - the place where social media is ultimately a time-waster and has little business value.

Yarmis talked with CIO.com about where companies have been missing the boat with Web 2.0 and social media, and what they must remember when they get started.

Social networking and related technologies have been popular in the consumer space for years now, but businesses have sometimes had difficulty finding value. What are they doing wrong?

The conventional wisdom for companies looking to use social media, and I get sick of hearing it, is that "you need to engage in the conversation" on a Facebook or Twitter. Well, you need to ask yourself, why are you engaging in the conversation? What are you trying to accomplish by it? Merely engaging in the conversation doesn't make some kind of magical outcome occur.

In fact, there are some conversations that aren't a good use of your time and that will lead you down counterproductive paths. You want to get involved in conversations that are meaningful and impact your business.

What Comcast has done on Twitter has been brilliant. Cable companies, in general, do not do well with customer service. But there has been a lot of buzz around about how Comcast been using Twitter to foster customer service and answer questions about their service. That is a case of knowing what conversation to pick. They haven't changed much about their customer service, but they've changed the perception of it with some of their customers who use Twitter.

You noted that many companies start with the intention of getting involved with social media externally, perhaps by joining a social network or setting up social technologies on their own websites. But more often than not, they end up doing their most meaningful implementations internally first. Why is this?

External collaboration is a very complicated dynamic. Internally, you can control a culture and things might spread virally pretty quickly. The internal things will also occur naturally. Users will do these things themselves and always have. Users will utilize Web 2.0 or collaborative tools on their own. Just look at how they use SharePoint.

But once you get outside the boundaries of the company, you lose that kind of control and more complex relationships come into play. There may be legal requirements. All the health care or financial organizations I have conversations with who want to do something with social media have this specter of regulatory issues or European data privacy laws. While the younger generation seems happy to share everything with everyone, those up the food chain will say the information we share outside the organization has to be more carefully controlled than the stuff inside.

There are companies that are saying collaborative innovation on the Web is the future. I've got to learn new methods of sharing and get out of my comfort zone. There are other companies, though, that say, that sounds great and very "kumbayah," but I'm not going to share everything. I want to manage my intellectual property very carefully.

How would you describe the method for implementing social software to start? How is it different than traditional software?

In some ways it's optimized by Google: throw something up there and see what sticks. The days of these multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts and software deployments - I won't say they'll be gone completely, but they basically just don't make sense anymore. If you start with some lofty business objective like "we want to improve customer satisfaction," you still need to just take a first step [with social media] and see what happens.

I see so many companies come up with 137 ideas about that they want to do with social media, but they should just start with one. Get comfortable taking that first step and see what works along the way. That is way different than the software model we're used to.

This story, "How businesses can get more from social networking" was originally published by CIO.

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