Five years ago, it would have sounded absurd that something called a tweet could be a powerful marketing tool. But, sites like Twitter -- home of the aforementioned tweets -- Facebook and LinkedIn have proven to be valuable to businesses.
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"One of the biggest benefits is exposure. [Social networking] is making it easier for perspective partners and customers to discover us," said John Powers, president of Digipede Technologies, an Oakland, Calif.-based reseller.
Besides just making the company easier to find, social networking can make it seem more approachable and make clients feel more comfortable. Jennifer Mazzanti, president of Hoboken, N.J.'s eMazzanti Technologies, said a personal connection to clients really helps and that Facebook is a large part of why eMazzanti Technologies is able to engage its clients in such a way.
"It is just another way that you're in constant touch with people. Knowing that it's your client's kid's birthday gives you another reason to talk to them," Mazzanti said. It is a way of engaging people that was never possible in the past. These sort of tools give businesses a way of engaging people that wasn't possible in the past, she said.
In addition to polishing a company's relationships with its clients, social networking is used to maintain communication within companies. As more companies open multiple branches, it's very important to facilitate constant communication between offices. Tools like Yammer were built for this purpose. One of the most favorable things social networking sites help to do is maintain that camaraderie among employees.
"We're a company with multiple locations, so very often our employees have a hard time getting to know one another. So it's really great to communicate and learn a little bit about their personal lives," said Jane Cage, chief operating officer of Heartland Technology Solutions, based in Joplin, Mo.
Len Devanna, EMC Corp.'s director of Web strategy, said social networking sites help flatten out companies. Without EMC's internal networking site, EMC1, the company would absolutely not function as well as it does, he said. "We're at a point where we couldn't live without it," he said.
Clearly, social networking has made an impact, but will it last? The economic downturn has pushed people into social media. Fifty-seven percent of respondents to a Sage Software-sponsored survey said the current economic circumstances were very or extremely important in their decision to use electronic social media. Which begs the question: Will social media use fall when the economy bounces back? The survey, conducted by AMI Partners Inc. for Sage, found that the use of social networking tools by small businesses rose 33% over the past year.
Devanna said he doesn't think there will be much of a change. "This is not a fad. This is here to stay. I wouldn't look at social media as a thing unto itself. Rather, I guess you need to look at it as another part in the evolution of our online world," he said.
Powers said that social networking is just a crutch for the industry right now. "When the economy is good, you want to save money. When the economy is bad, you want to save money. It doesn't make much of a difference," he said.
The downside of social net use
But there's a dark side to the fun-and-games of social networking. For one thing, security software companies Kaspersky Lab and Symantec both point to growing use of social net sites by purveyors of malware. They harvest personal information about people from these sites and use that to dupe recipients into opening dangerous email.
And there are other negative aspects. Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst of The StorageIO Group, said social networking tools can actually hurt rather than help productivity.
"It's about time. How productive can you be? How much business can you get done? If you're hanging out on Twitter all day tweeting and there is no ROI, that becomes an impediment on business," he said.
Cage understands the concern. "I don't want people taking a survey about their favorite '80s movies during company time," she said.
Despite the risks, social media use in small businesses is on the rise. Schulz said it is about learning how to use it properly and understanding what exactly it means for business.
Some VARs view it as just another tool in their arsenal for finding new business. Many use LinkedIn, FaceBook and Twitter to research prospective customers, for example. Each of those online sites can be searched by company name, so if a VAR wants to find a line-of-business manager at, say, Acme Paint and Glass, those tools can ease that quest.
"Social media is not a replacement for face-to-face meetings. It's an extension. Likewise, relying on face-to-face meetings is not efficient anymore. It's a balance," said Schulz.