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Socialization of Business - Facebook, Twitter and Others

Applying social networking tools into your business could mean many things for different scenarios: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The power of the endemic phenomenon known as social networking in today’s society cannot be disputed or ignored. It has facilitated the downfall of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (at the time of going to press, Syria and Yemen were next in line); has resulted in the exposé of love trysts involving high-profile figures such as soccer star Ryan Giggs, United States Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner; and, more recently, fuelled the ruinous riots in North London.
Although apparent that social technologies did and do not cause such things as the demonstrations seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, let alone the rioting in the United Kingdom, it is evident that social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger acted as the accelerant or
the facilitator.
It is the real-time connectivity and the strength of the social bonds created on these platforms that resulted in the successful co-ordination and execution of the uprisings, allowing participants to view themselves as part of a larger movement and even inspiring some to risk their lives together.
In the wake of the London riots, the same social media tools that had facilitated these upheavals were put to good use in mobilising clean-up efforts – demonstrating the dual qualities of their incredible strength.
Drawing upon these merits, it is no wonder that the boom in social media has revolutionised businesses, as these inadvertently seek to harness its power for their benefit.
Social media has brought about the dawn of a new era in the way businesses network with consumers, business partners, employees and vendors; and has seen a paradigm shift from the age of passive dissemination and reception of information to a more interactive one.
It would be foolhardy to ignore or try to stop this sweeping tide of technology.
According to Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading research technology firm: “The intensifying uptake of social media in the mass market is driving phone adoption, data usage and mobile Internet access.”
The results of the “Mobility 2011” research project, conducted by World Wide Worx and sponsored by First National Bank, show that six million South Africans now have Internet access on their phones, with 39% of urban South Africans and 27% of rural users now browsing the Internet from their phone.
When one considers these staggering figures, it becomes quite apparent that social media is no longer a fad – the new millennium of technology is here to stay.
Social networking and business
Due to the complexities of today’s global business environment, such as differences in geographical location, the demands arising from mobility issues and the frenetic pace at which business is conducted, it has become imperative for businesses to use social networking tools in order to adapt to the competitive economic landscapes.
Social media is precisely one such platform, as it provides quick and instant communication of information, defying otherwise insurmountable barriers of geography.
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More importantly, social media has been seen to foster growth, add value to a business and increase profit margins.
In fact, in a study conducted among small businesses by Cooper and Lybrand, it emerged that small businesses with key relationships with their vendors and employees, etc. through social media networking, experienced 11% higher sales turnover than those not utilising such relationships.
These interactions are particularly useful when one considers that social marketing information is relayed by one person to the next and is more likely to be well received as coming from a trusted source. This is the premise that determines the efficacy of viral marketing, a technique that uses pre-existing social networks to produce increases in brand awareness.
Although many businesses are opposed to the idea of social networking in the workplace, it has been shown that personal use has a productivity upside.
According to Goldstuck, the biggest mistake companies make, is to ban social networking altogether, simply because they do not know how to address it or because they have a generic prejudice against it.
All companies should explore ways to give employees access in a way that will not disrupt productivity, such as specific times of day – for example, the first hour, last hour or lunch hour. If companies fail to do so, employees will use their phones instead, and will not feel limited to specific times.
Visionary companies will look for ways to turn the likes of Facebook to productive use, such as collaboration and knowledge sharing, adds Goldstuck.
Employees are likely to turn to their own social networks for anything from recruitment purposes, sourcing information or personal interests. It becomes infinitely easier to convert any such association into a business one.
Rick Hutley, vice president of global innovations for the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group, aptly stresses the value of networking in the workplace by suggesting that, “Somewhere within that random series of connections lies genuine dollars-and-cents value to the firm, as employees exchange information and make contacts outside their ‘normal’ sphere of work acquaintances.”
If not monitored well, however, there can be productivity downsides as well.
Dylan James, manager of the Events Division at Cape Media, says: “As far as workplace productivity is concerned, social media can have a dramatic influence on it. It depends on the industry you are in: for one, to state with certainty whether this is a negative or positive influence. A journalist or market researcher can gain massively from engaging in social media, whereas an accountant or general office worker can lose hours of work time.”
It is therefore important to get the balance right and ensure that, although employees are allowed access to these sites, they do so without subjecting the company to undue risk.
Businesses are made up of interpersonal relationships, and social media allows businesses to connect with many more people than they would otherwise do in the course of a normal week. It is this connectivity that allows garnering of information and ideas that are beneficial for a business’s research and development needs, and it opens up many more resources as well.
The average consumer today is techno-savvy and more discerning; demanding a more transparent and more direct relationship with the companies with which they engage; and if not satisfied or sufficiently persuaded by a brand’s proffering, they merely click away to another website.
The challenge is for businesses to create content that is interesting and relevant, and which encourages readers to share it with their own social networks, otherwise it is the organisations who invest time and effort in this which will stand out and establish market presence.
Social media provides a cost-effective marketing premise for consumer-centric companies, as compared to traditional marketing methods such as print, television and radio. Companies are able to create their own banner ads on sites, as well as create own home pages.
Twitter, which is rated as the leading social media platform, particularly among Fortune 100 companies, is a very effective medium where corporate blogs can be published – fostering information sharing and strengthening brand image.

The cons
Despite the obvious attractions of social media, there exist some insidious risk factors that are worth noting.
A business that chooses to engage in social networking in order to harness the benefits, makes itself vulnerable to attack in the same instance.
The fallout from attacks by disgruntled customers, employees or malignant competitors can cause tremendous damage to company reputation or brand image.
US investor Warren Buffet often says it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.
It presents a catch-22 situation, as choosing not to participate means being left behind and which really is not an option worth considering, while engaging in social media exposes a company to risk.
Companies have to find a way to engage, while insuring themselves against the innumerable contingencies that may occur as a result thereof.
James cites another risk in the form of turnaround times for responses from organisations.
If a brand or business does not reply in the nick of time, it leaves a gap for the consumer to question the transparency of the brand and for competitors to join the discussion, offering their products as a solution to the query.
He notes that it is vital to have a detailed social media policy, to which all staff authorised to represent the company must adhere.
Another downside to note is that despite the hype surrounding social media, its benefits or rewards are often not seen instantly, but in the months to come, and – unlike Google Ad Words – does not have quick returns.
Social media should rather be seen as a tool for good customer service and a platform for brand marketing, the payoff of which will be some time in the future.
It is a known fact that social networking can be used by companies to keep tabs on their competition.
It is possible for companies or even employees to give away too much information, such as revealing prospective clients. For companies, particularly small businesses, that may not be sure how to participate or what sort of information to put out there – or which simply do not have the resources to put in the time and cost of monitoring, managing and measuring this engagement – it may be best to enlist expert help.

Parting shot
Local businessman and entrepreneur Oliver Wassmann suggests employing services of a consultant to assist with this, and adds that it is important to get experienced help.
Social networking is a great way for businesses to conduct market research and introduce new products. This approach needs to be done with caution, however. As Wassmann puts it, “Social media is not only a platform for information, but misinformation.”
Stealthy competitors may be keeping tabs under the pretext of being interested customers; and on platforms such as Twitter, may simply be following you under a personal alias.
Another downside to social media lies in not integrating it as a core element.
According to Goldstuck, “The single biggest danger in a business engaging in social networking is that it is used in isolation of overall business and marketing strategy. This results in a disconnect between social networking and other business activity, and a lack of cohesion in business processes as well as marketing messaging.”
There will always be dangers associated with social media. However, the advantages of engaging far outweigh the disadvantages.
Whether or not a company chooses to engage in it, online conversations will continue to take place, and the worst thing to do would be to do nothing.
About the author: Black Business Quarterly