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There's a recession out there. Money's tight. So here's a cheap piece of advice for managers wondering how to harness the power of social networks in the workplace: Don't spend a dime.
That's right. Don't hire consultants or a tech team. And whatever you do, steer clear of software architects. Most companies that build their own social networking tools end up with failures. The problem goes far beyond clunky design and balky servers. It's simply that social networks are useless until they draw a crowd—and most of the crowds are busy on public sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
So instead of spending a fortune to draw employees, customers, and clients to your site, how about meeting them where they already are for free? Chances are lots of them are among the 200 million on Facebook and the 30 million on LinkedIn. And more of them are Twittering every day.
Here's how to start: Go to Facebook and search for the name of your company. There's a good chance there's already a group. (I just tried H.J. Heinz, a company I used to cover, and found an "I Work(ed) at Heinz" group with 159 members.) Join the group (if it seems appropriate), read what they're up to, then try posing a question: Is there a place for the company in this group, or perhaps a separate one?
That starts a discussion, and who know where it leads? Yes, running a company group on a public site raises issues. It's no place for secrets and inside information. But you know what? You probably don't want that type of info circulating on private networks, either. Each secret is just a cut-and-paste away from the blogosphere. What's more, transparency is a virtue of the social Web. Maybe customers or suppliers will join. Sure, smart employees working for rivals will take a look, too. But if they see a lively site, maybe they'll ask you for a job.
Move over to LinkedIn. They have company groups, too, where the same process might yield fruit. LinkedIn also runs a section called "Answers," in which you can pose a question to the crowd. Consider asking them to recommend the most useful company groups. Then take a look at them.
On to Twitter. Set up an account. It takes two minutes. A lot of companies use Twitter for 140-character tidbits of public relations. Forget about that, at least for now, because no one is following you. Instead, think of Twitter as a customer outreach tool.
Start by going to www.search.twitter.com and search the name of your company. You'll see quickly that people are Twittering about it. You might consider clicking the "Follow" button for each of these people. That means you subscribe to their Twitter feeds, and each of them gets an e-mail informing them that you're tuning into them. Chances are they'll keep talking about your brand, and you'll pick up insights—for the right price.
Baker is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York.