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By Hart W. Van Denburg
Six years ago, at about the same time that Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg was concocting a fledgling version of Facebook, the co-author of a treatise on corporate transparency peered into the future for the readers of The Washington Post and warned businesses that, "You're going to be naked, so you'd better be buff."
Fast forward to 2009 and it appears that Facebook, with more than 200 million users, and Twitter, with 32 million, are among the leading tools proving Tapscott right: Companies themselves and employees are adopting social-networking tools and concepts, and in the process changing the way they communicate internally and externally. How fast are people adopting these tools? ComScore found that social network usage in the public space grew a record 12 percent to nearly 140 million visitors in April, or nearly three-quarters of the U.S. online population.
Roughly three-quarters of companies surveyed in an oft-cited report by Challenger, Gray and Christmas said they allow access to social media; 10 percent regard social media as a valuable marketing tool, and 8 percent said they encourage employees to use social media. In doing so they hope to promote their company, their brand, their products, and their events.
Other companies, concerned about trade secrets, managing brand and maintaining system stability, have adopted enterprise-only applications that serve similar functions, allowing users to post and comment on bookmarks and content ranging from text to video, and allowing the content to be filtered according to a user's interests or needs.
Thus, on the public side, one can find service-desk workers at Comcast, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, retail workers and Patagonia and Ford CEO Alan Mulally sitting down to communicate with the world on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other tools. And behind their firewalls, companies including Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Best Buy, and Deloitte are building enterprise social-media tools of their own to leverage the power of collaboration among thousands of employees around the globe.
Effective use of Twitter
Twitter, a browser-based interface using the Ruby on Rails framework, allows users to post messages of 140 characters or less, follow other users, and filter posts according to interests and topics, is the latest social-media tool to have captured lightning in a bottle. Marketers and savvy business leaders weren't far behind. Twitter launched in 2006, and the following year, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh was introduced to it while attending the SXSW media convention in Austin, Texas. Aaron Magness, director of business development at Zappos, says Hsieh soon became a Twitter evangelist within the company, and far from trying to ban it or limits use over concerns about productivity or divulging company secrets, Hsieh encouraged employees to sign up; hundreds of them now tweet as a way to communicate with each other internally, and are happy to let the public in on the conversation. Anyone on Twitter is now welcome to follow the Zappos customer service team, its help desk, the book club, a wellness expert and many more, as well as individual employees. The growth has been organic.
Twitter has also turned Hsieh into a social-media star. He has more than 700,000 followers on Twitter and epitomizes how the company gives its employee social networkers wide latitude. (June 6 tweet: "Going fishing for first time w/ board member. I think they might be taking the whole "teach a man to fish" thing too literally.")
Magness's own staff spends a few minutes each day updating official social-media pages, perhaps to coordinate with a new campaign or solicit feedback on a service.
"If you can't trust your employees, you've got bigger problems" than Twitter, he says.
That transparency became a marketing boon, Magness says. As an online retailer whose only product is its customer service, Zappos embraced Twitter because it opens a window into the company and allows customers a new way to engage employees, adding a layer to one-on-one interaction on the telephone. He says there are few published company guidelines as to what employees post, including personal and political opinions. Customers seeing and responding to these "open, honest" posts form a sense that they are connecting to real people with authentic personalities; both employees and customers then become loyal evangelists and customers "feel like they are buying something from a friend."
The Zappos Web site also offers ways to convert customers to brand ambassadors. Any product on the Zappos site can be shared and commented on using any of the more than 40 social-media sites using AddThis. Zappos also offers syndication feeds for news products to more than a dozen RSS readers.
That sort of open communication with customers pays dividends, says Jonathan Yarmis, principal analyst at the Yarmis Group and the former VP of disruptive technologies at AMR Research. These days, he says, "your brand is what your customers say it is."
That doesn't mean the wisdom of crowd is right in its assessment of your company's product or service, but that your customers are online, defining your product among their peers through virtual word of mouth, and they can share a bad experience as broadly, and with lightning speed, as a good experience, Yarmis says. The quicker you find them and communicate with them on social networks in a transparent and authentic way, the better chance you have of building loyal customers and boosting your bottom line.