Social Studies: Facebooking for Fun and Profit
I've got a Facebook account. And a MySpace account, a Twitter account, a LinkedIn account, a Biznik account and some others I forgot about mere minutes after registering. Facebook has proven the most involving of late, what with virtually every person I've ever known signing up and offering me a chance to see how their careers have turned out, how gracefully they've aged and how gorgeous their children are (a surprising number have done well on all counts, I'm pleased to say).
Because our company doesn't operate in some sphere entirely separate from our personal lives — we've done projects for friends and become friendly with clients — I find my social networking combines business with pleasure. But the business part is more about staying on people's radar than anything else. My Twitter updates (usually in haiku form) center on whatever work I'm doing at the moment. On Facebook, my status notes, links and other page flair are less formal but seemingly still useful for reminding people that I traffic in words.
In a recent blog post, one of our favorite clients, Josh Levine (chief brand activist over at Rebel Industries), presented some intriguing thoughts about Facebook's business potential. In "The Facebook Problem," Josh argues that FB could out-compete business-networking leader LinkedIn if it launched an all-business site.
"Social networking can be a drug," says Jordan Wexler, CEO of online business site SmartGuy.com, in "Social Networking vs. Local Networking – The Truth," an article posted recently on Biznik. "You think that you are making all of these connections every time you send out an email, but the fact is you end up wasting a lot of time on it, especially when most people scan it very briefly as they are sifting through the hundreds [of social-networking solicitations] they get each month." Wexler emphasizes the value of local, immediate contacts over the panacea of digital schmoozing.
"It doesn't count for much unless you can move the relationship off the social network and into real, in-person activities."
Such musings, along with my own adventures in friending, got me wondering how other people experienced the blend of work and play offered by these online communities. So I posed the question to some deep-thinkers I know (and to whom I'm both an analog and a digital friend): Does all this online socializing help your business?
Tom Hillard, a tech entrepreneur, music exec and founder of his own social-networking site, Ekaweeka, says yes. He adds, however, "How much it converts to actual dollar signs is subject to tons of speculation." Hillard volunteers that, for one thing, Ekaweeka — billed as "The Small Business Community" and created as a kind of online village for artists and entrepreneurs — enables users to enhance their SEO simply by networking within its confines. As for the heavyweights in the social-networking universe, he acknowledges that MySpace is still a force for music but "being a business there almost has a negative value these days."
He further acknowledges the importance of Facebook and kindred sites for making connections and "getting the word out." "But at the end of the day," Hillard reflects, "it doesn't count for much unless you can move the relationship off the social network and into real, in-person activities — or, at the very least, communication via e-mail and phone."
He reports about 20% success in developing business contacts from online networking — and that perhaps 5% of that results in partnerships or other genuine opportunities. So social networking isn't yet a goldmine, but its meager commercial rewards thus far in the business sphere are balanced out elsewhere. "Fortunately," Hillard says, "the auxiliary benefits of Facebook (staying in touch with friends and family) and MySpace (finding new music and sharing it with people) make the 'wasted time' worthwhile."
Given Facebook's collegiate origins, perhaps it's not surprising that it has sometimes yielded more tangible results for professionals in the groves of academe. Sean Wiley, who works in the Office of Communications at Antioch University New England (based in Keene, N.H.), has found a welcome fringe benefit in "being a gadabout friendly guy, helping create positive vibes about my campus" with social-networking tools. He recounts the creation of a Facebook page for the school and "some initial recruiting" among students, faculty and staff; though its growth was slow at first, Antioch's page — bedecked with posts about events and links to video and other content hosted on the Antioch site — has amassed more than 500 fans.
This may be due in part to Facebook's explosive growth in recent months, but the momentum is undeniable. "In addition to alums and current folk," Sean elaborates, "there are friends and family of people directly involved, but also — and this is the gravy — some prospective students and applicants. As a recruiting tool, it seems to be a good thing indeed."
Others in higher education are looking to new, more focused social networks. Jon Curtiss, an organizer at AFT Michigan (American Federation of Teachers), has discovered Union Book. "It's brand-spankin' new so I haven't used it yet," he qualifies, "but I'm intrigued by the possibilities."