Small business – the next frontier for social networks

January 5, 2010

warner– Martin Warner, chief executive officer and co-founder of Talkbiznow, an interactive business social network. The views expressed are his own. –

If anyone had any doubts about the growing importance of social networks they surely passed in 2009 when Twitter burst into the mass consciousness.

The micro-blogging website — which enables people to upload small, bite-sized posts about what is on their mind — joined Facebook, the world’s most popular social network, and YouTube, the video sharing site, in changing the behaviour of people sitting in front of digital screens around the globe.

While the world of business social networking has yet to have such a seismic impact on the behaviour of professionals and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), I believe 2010 could be the year when small businesses start to realise the great benefits that these networks can bring.

Without the resources and technological infrastructure of major corporations, SMEs can obtain great business benefits from so-called next-generation internet services, which enable people to seamlessly communicate with each other using video, voice and instant messaging communication tools.

Talkbiznow is an interactive business social network which provides voice and web conferencing services which enable SMEs to bypass the cost of hosting their own conference.

Talkbiznow members are also using the site to host sales calls, share documents and oversee PowerPoint presentations, which cuts down the travel costs associated with visiting a potential client at the beginning of the sales process.

Talkbiznow is currently Beta testing Webstore, a service that enables our users to set up their own micro business website for free using off-the-shelf templates.

A Webstore ‘page’ has its own unique URL address viewable across the web and enables visitors to pay for products and services via PayPal, the online payment system.

The service will function as an interactive marketing tool — sitting in the space between an online advertisement and traditional business website — enabling users to display links to websites and photographs and upload videos about their business offering using a smart mobile phone.

Business social networks also provide excellent opportunities for obtaining access to the most talented workers around the world.

Linkedin, reported that it had 50 million registered users in a blog on the website in October 2009.  Half of Linkedin’s users are in the US while it has signed up 11 million professionals in Europe and 3 million in India, now the network’s fastest growing market.

Linkedin’s biggest rival in Europe, Hamburg-based Xing, has more than 8 million professionals and its careers and jobs section is one of the main services that it offers to its users.

Everyone from university alumni to employees with specialist skills such as high frequency, computer-based traders in the City of London can join a host of groups on Linkedin which advertise jobs as well as displaying links to news stories, discussion forums and occasionally blogs by industry professionals.

Social networks can also be used by small businesses as refined advertising tools. Advertising executives are increasingly recognising the great value of the information on members housed in these websites, which usually has much more detail and focus than the data on display in consumer networks such as Facebook.

However, while social networks present great opportunities for professionals and SMEs, small businesses looking at opportunities latent within social networking websites should proceed with caution.

The first peril when dealing with information gathered from social networking websites arises from the fact that the digital screen where information is viewed from can provide a cloak for impostors, unscrupulous individuals seeking to mislead viewers about their personal achievements and credentials or individuals with a vendetta against a particular company.

A social network is just another layer of validation. Information viewed should be double-checked and verified in just the same way as it is with other information portals which are used to search for a prospective employee, employer, or business partner.

Small businesses which have employees that use online social networks should also issue clear guidelines for how the websites are used. This guards against the potential reputational risk of an employee saying something defamatory online while — in effect — acting as a spokesperson for his or her business.

However, while SMEs should be mindful of potential hazards when using these new communication portals they have to attune themselves to the new opportunities which social networks can bring. Whether networks such as Twitter — which have been used by celebrities and businesses alike to build up brand awareness — stand the test of time or not, the growing importance of social networks can not be ignored.

We live in a digital age where business critical information is becoming increasingly important. As communities on business social networks develop and grow information sharing spreads.

A particular business group within a social network will itself help members solve problems and obtain information about their community, whether the group is focused on a particular industry, product or business area. This is happening right now on Linkedin, Xing, Talkbiznow and other business social networks.

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