Recent data from GfK indicates that the social-networking revolution is having a significant impact on businesses and how they operate. Businesses are waking up to the importance of social networks in shaping their online image and the opportunities they provide in reaching out to new clients and employees. The key challenge is how to make the most of this ever-evolving space.
Changing attitudes to social networking
Gone are the days when social networking meant simply adding friends and family on Facebook and posting photos from last night’s work do. Social networking is getting serious. The rise of Twitter (and others) has given social networking a more complete identity. Beyond just a social tool, it is now also a platform for news consumption and a vital marketing resource for businesses. This is demonstrated by the emergence of dedicated business sites such as Viadeo and LinkedIn, designed specifically as a resource for business purposes and the increasing importance companies are placing on marketing activities in this area.
The result is that people no longer see social networking as a purely personal activity. A recent GfK/Viadeo survey of 1,000+ users of a social networking site from UK, French, Spanish, Brazilian and Indian businesses, revealed that more than half agree that social networking has become integral to business life, providing vital networking opportunities unavailable elsewhere, and helping to create a more innovative, inspirational, and creative environment. Conversely, only a small minority either dismiss the business-related possibilities of social networking as ‘more trouble than it’s worth’, or have a formal policy to not allow access to social networking at work. Either way, the ever-increasing use of personally-owned devices at work is driving businesses to address the issue.
What is less clear right now is whether this merely demonstrates a passive acceptance by businesses that social networking is an important communications channel for staff, or whether the majority of companies understand the unique benefits (and potential threats) social networking provides to their business. The reality is that it’s probably a bit of both.
Word of mouth and the importance of social networking
Our survey data suggests that businesses are beginning to grasp the real importance of social networking – over five in six had used social networking for business purposes in the previous six months (a figure which rises to almost nine in 10 in the UK). Businesses are increasingly aware that sites such as Viadeo offer a cost-efficient way to recruit staff or to contact potential new clients/partners/suppliers, to extend their global reach, or to aid decisions relating to business strategy. However, the area where social networking appears to get most attention is in the marketing and communications space. Two thirds of the businesses surveyed said they either have or plan to change marketing spend to include or favour social networking, whilst a similar proportion already have or are planning their own viral marketing campaigns.
Why such a large number? Put simply, businesses increasingly understand the need to control their online image, and social networking is vital to this. Social networking is ultimately about word of mouth, and research consistently shows that consumers trust word of mouth more than other source of information when considering products and services. It naturally follows that businesses value the importance of word of mouth and must react as it moves online. It is, therefore, unsurprising that just under two thirds of businesses said they already do or plan to monitor their online image in some way, whilst three quarters have or plan to increase controls over their online image and IP. An example of this is the targeting of influential tweeters in the hope that they will forward a message and benefit the business in question.
A threat (and an opportunity)
It is arguably in this area that businesses face the biggest challenge. Typically, a major concern for businesses when considering social networking is employee productivity – and indeed, our survey shows that employers estimate that one in every 10 employees is spending a day or more of their working week on social networking sites. However, the explosion of social networking and related technology has complicated the problem. Social networks make it difficult for businesses to control their image in the public space. Sites such as Twitter and Facebook provide people with an instant platform beyond control of the business, to critique products and services, and to share with friends or even complete strangers. The monitoring of bad publicity is essential as a bad customer service experience is often just a few clicks of the mouse away from being announced to the world.
But where threats exist, there are also opportunities. A small family-run restaurant can find itself the place to be on the back of a few local tweets or Facebook likes, all without spending a penny on marketing. Many businesses are now actively empowering their employees to write blogs covering issues across the whole business spectrum, with a view to establishing or cementing their reputation for specialist knowledge and thought leadership. Companies lacking the massive advertising budgets of large multi-national corporations have found that smart, viral advertising campaigns can reach masses of consumers with a fraction of the ad spend of their rivals. An RNLI campaign to spread the organisation’s values amongst 15-20 year olds in 2009, reached a reported 11 percent of the age group in the UK by targeting just 12 influential online video bloggers.
The challenge for the future
Evidence clearly shows that social networking is becoming important to businesses. This isn’t going to go away. The key challenge faced by businesses large and small is to identify where the opportunities exist for them with this essentially free resource, and use those opportunities effectively. A further challenge will be to ensure the benefits of social networking are maintained over time, by ensuring momentum is not lost after an initial burst of activity. Whatever approach is taken, social networking will play a key role in how businesses operate in future, alongside what have been more traditional channels.
 Fieldwork conducted Q1 2012
 Bring Your Own Device – the biggest headache for company IT in 2012; GfK TechTalk February 2012