Social networking is a little like the Marmite of the business world – companies either love it or hate it.
But with Generation Y filtering through the ranks employee and customer expectations are set to be raised as the technology creeps further into everyday use. In fact, used properly, social media can help create a buzz around a launch, promotion or service.
With the rise of smartphones, more people have social networks at their fingertips and will spend any spare time during the working day checking various accounts. A lot of firms have banned use of Facebook or Twitter at work – sometimes moving even to discipline or fire staff.
Research from MyJobGroup.co.uk suggested that 40 per cent of UK employees questioned have criticised their company on social networking and micro-blogging sites, with one in five admitting to blasting their bosses on the sites. About 53 per cent of workers believed co-workers should be punished for doing so.
Lee Fayer, managing director of MyJobGroup.co.uk, says: “There is no doubt that social networks are seen as an environment where employees feel comfortable criticising their workplace.”
Open Facebook accounts and Tweets are effectively online publishing channels, he adds.
“Each has the potential to damage company and individual reputations, so staff should be careful.
“As an employee, if you were to openly defame your workplace in a newspaper or on a printed flyer, you would expect legal consequences. They should expect the same online,” Fayer says.
Potential for communications
Surely it would be better to tap into the potential for communications promised by social networking, and get employees using the technology for work purposes as well as pleasure?
What would this mean for the channel? How do you strike that elusive happy medium – keeping staff happy, while ensuring productivity does not suffer? Is the channel ready for social networking? Are end user customers embracing it as a means of communication? Or is it just a fad? Should all employers, channel or not, simply ban the use of these sites and ignore their existence?
Martin Schneider, director of product marketing at CRM specialist SugarCRM, says using social networking can help boost sales.
“Social media applications are becoming a vehicle or launching pad by which companies are improving sales and marketing in a lot of ways. Prior to the CRM and social media revolution, CRM was mono-directional pitching.
“Twitter and sales – or what some are calling sales 2.0 – is about engaging in a dialogue to lead prospects to the right sales decision. For most businesses, social media can accelerate sales in a lot of ways, but typically will not be the closing mechanism that snags more revenue on its own,” Schneider says.
Phil Rushton, channel operations director at Cisco UK and Ireland, says its partners are increasingly using social networking tools.
“We see many examples of Cisco partners using various social networking tools such as Twitter or YouTube to broadcast new offerings, business insight, interesting news clips and so on. Often these comments are less ‘corporate’ in style than we are used to, so they can bring a more personal, human voice to business.
“Another key feature of these tools is the ability to get immediate reaction or feedback from your audience which can be very powerful for business,” he adds.
Rushton says Cisco itself uses YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, SecondLife, Facebook and LinkedIn as well as its own collaboration platforms. Cisco has earmarked social networking and collaboration as the next phase of the internet that will increase productivity, innovation and growth, he says.
“At Cisco, we encourage employees to take advantage of these opportunities to participate in and build online communities,” he says.
“In doing so we are able to tailor our conversations to specific functions or business segments, and we can host discussions and readily foster partner-to-partner engagements, for example.”
Helps shape strategy
Rushton says the ability to get immediate feedback from Cisco’s partners is powerful and helps shape strategy, taking its channel relationships to another level.
“Generation Y employees and other early adopters bring these tools into the workplace – whether the IT manager or chief executive wants them there or not,” he adds.
“Businesses will need to develop a strategy to proactively manage these technologies and ideally develop organisational capabilities to take best advantage of them.”
According to Rushton, the resulting collaboration will help companies move faster, make better decisions, through drawing from a deeper base of information. Also, the any time, anywhere quality of social networking will help them operate better across time and distance barriers.
“As is always the case in business, either you pull ahead or the competition will,” Rushton says.
Graham Bunting, head of distribution at Opal Telecom, agreed.
“Social media is still really new to many, and I suspect we are all gearing up to Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like. It’s a great opportunity to get your message across, in a way many now want to interact,” he says. “All companies need to get their heads around it sooner or later.”
Some vendors are building their own social network. Psion has launched an online community called Ingenuity Working.
John Conoley, chief executive of Psion, says: “It brings us closer to our customers and their thoughts, and will allow us to socialise and commercialise innovation, bringing our developers and resellers to customers all over the world.”
Toshiba America Business Solutions has also built its own online channel community, based on a Facebook-style application from Jive Software. The copier company told CRN the aim is to drive shorter sales cycles and improve sales capacity among resellers as well as improve channel support.
It reached 1,800 members in just under three months and its members have created over 50 groups that have started 735 discussions, according to Toshiba America Business Solutions.
HP has also embraced social networking. Kevin Matthews, UK and Ireland channel manager at HP Enterprise Storage Servers and Networking, said its channel partners are just beginning to use social media.
"They are currently testing the water, as there’s still no hard and fast rule of how this new media can be used successfully in business," he said. "HP itself is increasing its use of social media. To drive submissions to the HP XP Challenge, an online competition set up to help identify and solve today’s top storage challenges, HP reached out to select storage LinkedIn and Facebook groups, as well as key storage influencers on Twitter. As a result we were able to reach 11,000 LinkedIn group members, 36,000 Facebook group members and 9,000 Twitter followers, including channel partners as well as end-users."
He added the use of social media will always depend on the information being communicated, with vendors not using the medium to distribute confidential information, but felt it will prove ever popular when announcing new product launches or initiatives.
Steve Holford, chief marketing officer at Fasthosts, predicts that the channel will increasingly adopt social networking.
“Twitter is widely adopted and we have seen direct and reseller customers using it. Often messages are just ‘statements’ of a situation or desire, but these can be used to engage with the customer,” Holford says.
Dave Ellis, director of e-security, professional services and training at Computerlinks, also feels adoption will accelerate.
“Vendors are using social networking to communicate with channel partners – a good example being Juniper, which has really embraced it via the likes of LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. This is also happening in the distribution world. We are using it to keep partners informed of news, events and promotions,” he says.
But Ellis says that as the boundaries between work and leisure blur, due to increased remote or flexible working, social network use will spread even further.
“Many are now issuing staff with devices such as Blackberries and iPhones that are ideal to run these types of applications,” he adds.
VAR Esteem has also muscled in on the act. Alastair Kitching, chief operating officer at Esteem, says it saw LinkedIn as a good starting point.
“We are developing our own LinkedIn network to generate discussions, stay in contact with people and share our knowledge. It also enables us to interact with our audience and engage with them on their level,” he says.
“As social media develops, so will our understanding and our deployment of social tools. Social media campaigns will become part of marketing strategies so key messages are controlled.”
Ben Beeching, EMEA marketing manager at Avocent, is more hesitant.
“There is a role to play for social media in business, but a way to go before it is fully embraced,” he says. “In the current information overload, social media can help you stay informed, but contribute to the problem at the same time.
“It should not be banned, but monitored and controlled from a corporate perspective,” he adds.
Beeching says Facebook has a limited role in business communication, so companies must decide individually whether to allow their staff access. Twitter however can work well, using the search engine optimisation it can support.
Sage is another vendor embracing the social media revolution. Catherine Sheldon, a specialist in digital public relations at Sage UK and Ireland, says many of its business partners are “extremely active” on social media platforms, using these tools to interact with Sage and their own customers.
“Being able to communicate with stakeholders on social media is critical in today’s digital age, so it is great to see so many of our customers and business partners embracing these platforms too,” she says. “Not only does it enable us to forge closer relationships with channel partners, but we are also able to quickly participate in conversations, and better understand people’s perceptions of the company, products and respond to any queries.”
Peter Titmuss, chairman of channel support firm Networks First, believes the question is not whether to become involved in social networking, but how.
“Often the individuals that fully embrace and engage in social media are key influencers and industry advocates,” he says. “In addition, if a company does not engage in online discussions when their competitors are increasingly doing so, not having a social media strategy will become risky.”
Colin McGregor, director of Enterprise Europe at Bell Micro, agrees that social networking can help increase sales. Some social networks could be an “amazing” sales and marketing tool, and resellers should take advantage.
“Social networks have potential to become the key method for vendors and VARs, especially niche players, to differentiate themselves in an increasingly homogenous marketplace,” he says.
McGregor claims that social networking is “too dynamic a tool to ignore”.
“Blogs and networking sites such as LinkedIn are valuable as a source of relevant information and service development, where business, resellers, vendors and distributors can share ideas with like-minded individuals,” McGregor says.
Suitable for business needs?
However, Steve Smith, managing director of security specialist VAR Pentura, warns that it is important to distinguish between social networks, and Web 2.0 functionality that is more suited to the workplace.
“Web 2.0 social networks are heavily focused on keeping in touch with friends and sharing photos, video and chatting in real time. Using social networks such as MySpace, Twitter and Facebook in the workplace is arguably questionable in terms of how it benefits business,” Smith points out. “Yet a combination of different media such as web, audio and video can be used to great effect.”
Those still not convinced about social networking might cite security as a stumbling block.
Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at security vendor Sophos, says Facebook and Twitter have both seen their fair share of spam and malware over the past few years that can compromise PCs or steal data.
“If organisations are to allow Facebook and Twitter in the workplace, it is crucial that they incorporate the correct defences into their IT security policy and a key part of this is to educate individuals to choose strong passwords and take good care of them,” Cluley notes.
Pentura’s Smith adds: “Aside from security Web 2.0 site access, companies that harness the technology for their own use should ensure their application and web site code is fully checked and written in a secure manner, and users must apply common sense. Take an extra moment to think about what you are about to do online.”
So provided a firm follows the correct security procedures and does not allow staff free rein, there appears to be a tangible business benefit from social networking that the channel can take advantage of.
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