What is Social Networking, and Why Should You Care?

Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Huzitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month Laurie looks at Social Networking.

What is Social Networking?

Social networking, also referred to as social media, encompasses many Internet-based tools that make it easier for people to listen, interact, engage and collaborate with each other. Social networking platforms such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, message boards, Wikipedia and countless others are catching on like wildfire.

People use social networking to share recipes, photos, ideas and to keep friends updated on our lives. In many cases, you can use social networking tools from mobile devices, such as Blackberries and iPhones, as easily as from a PC or Mac.

By its very nature, social networking is interactive. You can tell anyone (that you want to talk to, and that wants to listen to you) anything about your opinions and experiences—and vice versa–through blogs, Facebook pages, videos and even 140 character messages called tweets. You can also build communities based on common interests, causes and concerns.

While we don’t have room to discuss all of the social networking sites, here’s a sampler to help you get your head around today’s most popular social networking tools:

  • Blogs are sites that people set up to provide information and opinions about events, ideas or anything else they want to discuss. Blogs can include links to other related sites, photos, videos and sound as well as text. The number of bloggers is growing exponentially; eMarketer estimates that in 2007 there were almost 23 million U.S. bloggers and more than 94 million blog readers.
  • Twitter is a micro-blogging site. Twitter members post text messages called “tweets” of 140 characters or less, using either a computer or a cell phone. Other Twitter users can “follow”” your posts, but you can decide if you want to let them follow you or not. Compete.com, a Web-traffic analysis service, says that Twitter had 6 million unique visits in February 2009.
  • Facebook is a social networking site where you can set up a profile, join different communities, and connect with friends. More than 175 million people currently use Facebook—and the fastest growing demographic is people over the age of 35.
  • LinkedIn is a social networking site with about 38 million members. While it shares a lot of the same features and capabilities you’ll find on Facebook, LinkedIn focuses specifically on helping people build career and business communities.
  • Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Articles provide links to related information. In 2008, Wikipedia had 684 million visitors, and 75,000 contributors working on more than 10 million articles.
  • YouTube is a site to share and watch videos. Anyone can record a video and then upload and share it via the YouTube site. Everyone can watch the videos on YouTube.  In January, The U.S. Congress and YouTube announced the launch of official Congressional YouTube channels, which gives each member of the House and Senate the opportunity to create his or her own YouTube channel. 

The world of blogs, tweets and wikis can be confusing for many people. Even if you are comfortable using Facebook, YouTube and other services in your personal life, you may be wondering if social networking can be a useful tool for your business.

The answer is a resounding yes. Small businesses can use social networking for many practical purposes. You can use these tools (which are usually free) to locate experts and find information, pose questions and get answers. Thoughtful use of social networking services can help you move beyond conventional, one-way marketing, such as advertising, and tap into a more interactive marketing approach. For instance, you use social networking tools to:

  • Research ideas, and learn more about what customers and prospects are saying about their needs and experiences, and about your products and related areas.
  • Gain new market and competitive insights to improve your products and services.
  • Create and join conversations with customers, prospects, partners and other constituents about key issues and concerns.
  • Create positive word-of-mouth about your products and services.
  • Grow your company’s reputation as a thought leader.

What to Consider

Navigating through the social media maze can be overwhelming at first. If you’re just starting out, remember you can start small. In fact, I’d recommend taking smaller steps first, before you tackle writing your own blog or creating an online community. Here are a couple of easy ways to get started.

  • Monitor relevant online conversations in social media. Tuning into online conversations can provide you with insights for marketing and new products and services. Google Blog Search and other tools can help you find relevant blogs, and you can set up an RSS reader, like Google Reader, to get content delivered to you automatically.
  • Join conversations. You don’t have to write you own blog—you can comment and respond or answer questions in other blog posts, or on Twitter. Follow the same rules of etiquette you’d use in the physical world—make your comments relevant, behave ethically and be authentic—and remember to identify yourself and your company.

  • Use relevant communities for market research. On LinkedIn, for instance, you can join relevant professional communities to discuss what’s going on in your industry and ask questions. Or try Facebook Polls to poll targeted Facebook users, based on demographic data. With this tool, you can field a single-question poll in a few minutes, and get responses from hundreds of people in less than hour.

As you get more involved, you’ll learn as you go about the different types of social media, how other small businesses use them, and approaches you can use to launch your own online community, blog or YouTube video. So get in and join the conversation!

Did this help you understand social networking? Let me know, and send me any additional questions you have on the topic. Also, please send your suggestions for other technology terms and areas that you’d like explained in upcoming columns. You can reach me at laurie.mccabe@hurwitz.com, or my Twitter handle, lauriemccabe.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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