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This is the first column of a continuing series of articles addressing new developments and applications in the world of social networking and social media services, with an important twist. It isn’t for kids and consumers as you might expect; rather it’s all about how businesses and organizations are using these new tools to enhance communication with their key constituencies, improving marketing, customer support, sales, and even their products and services.

What’s Social Networking?

According to Wikipedia, A social network service focuses on building online communities of people who share interests and/or activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others. Fast growing sites include Facebook, Twitter, Ning, and LinkedIn.

Again according to Wikipedia, itself a social media site of sorts, Social media is information content created by people using highly accessible and scalable publishing technologies. It is intended to facilitate communications, influence interaction between peers and with public audiences. Examples include blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos.

These definitions point directly to the power of these initially consumer-oriented tools for business application. In the past, much of our business communication has been one way out essentially ?open loop?. Examples include everything from policy manuals, to newsletters (internal and external), to various forms of broadcast advertising, to most forms marketing and even to customer support.

Close the Loop With Customers

Now, with social networking and social media offerings, businesses can close the loop with customers, partners, employees, and other key groups. We can get interactive on a one-to-one basis at a scale that was impossible before. I’m talking about a two-way dialog here where we’re directly connected with our key stakeholders.

If your first reaction to this concept is Oh my gosh, it sounds like chaos and anarchy. I must remain in control of the conversation?, let me offer this. For virtually all businesses, these conversations are already ongoing among your various customers, employees, etc. The only question is whether you want to participate or not.

So why should you? As Charles Darwin said, It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. What’s true for species often over long periods of time, is true for business but on a hyper-accelerated scale. By getting your employees interactive with your customers using social networking and social media, your company’s rate of learning will accelerate dramatically. This will lead to better decision-making and improved resource utilization that will payback the investment many times over; not to mention improving customer satisfaction and loyalty.

In future columns, I’ll share examples of how leading businesses are using Twitter, Ning, Facebook, MySpace, TalkShoe, WordPress, iTunes, YouTube, GetSatisfaction, and more.

Now What?

So where should you start? Let’s pick an easy place that will almost certainly motivate you to wade in deeper. Begin by finding out what people are currently saying about your business. Go to www.google.com/alerts and enter the name of your company. Once a day (or more often if selected), you’ll receive an email listing each blog post, press mention, and web reference to your company. Amazing!

If this generates numerous unrelated citings, consider placing your company name in quotes, as in Acme Industries?. And when you get that right, set up Google alerts on your competitors. When they make a mistake, you’ll know about it and be ready to capitalize.