Instinct: Nearly every decision a person makes in his or her lifetime can in some way be tied to an instinctual reaction. One of the most primal of instincts is survival and the key to our evolutionary climb has been the instinct to live in groups or the herd mentality. The instinct is simple — survival in numbers is far easier than going it alone.
The herd is now electronic and in the form of social networking on the Internet. No matter what your interests, you can find a social networking site that will allow you to communicate with like-minded individuals anywhere in the world, at any time. Technology, specifically the Internet, has removed traditional boundaries (distance, time zones, etc.) that previously limited “global gathering,” and this medium has literally exploded. Now more than any other time in our history people are gathering together. While virtual through the Internet, individuals continue to benefit from the comfort, safety and strength that are found in the herd.
Industries and businesses have increasingly been trying to figure out how to leverage the massive amount of information and consumers that are available on these social networking sites. Perhaps the two most prominent and recognizable social networking sites are Facebook and MySpace. Each has a demographic that is very appealing to businesses of all types. However, the primary obstacle to further leveraging these sites’ business appeal to date is resistance from the users to advertising or any other type of interference in their “personal space.”
For many social networking site users, the site represents a place of control and solitude from their everyday lives. Social networking site participants literally go there to get away and spend time in an environment that is entirely in their control. Now business is trying to integrate into a domain that many view as private.
While there may be a belief that these individual pages in MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are personal and private, the reality is they are not. Multibillion-dollar entities such as Microsoft and News Corp. would not have taken positions in them if they did not see the potential for a substantial return on their investments. The question is not if business is going to try to leverage these sites — the question is how. Advertising has always been the most obvious and first application of business on social networking sites, but how to advertise has been a trial-and-error process. Pushing advertising on users has proved problematic for both MySpace and Facebook.
The next avenue that business pursued was market research. In November 2007, Facebook encountered outrage from its users after it published users’ purchases for friends to see. While there was an “opt out” option, most users did not see it until after the fact. This tactic represented a huge PR issue for Facebook. However, this marketing tactic is another, and perhaps the most viable, business option for organizations to leverage through the social networking sites. The amount of data that the sites capture can be gold. But the site owners have to be extremely careful with how and what information they are sharing outside of the site. First there are privacy concerns, but second, a site that does not listen to the concerns and needs of its user base is destined for failure. With the rate at which new sites are popping up, the landscape to attract users is dramatically more competitive than it was even two years ago.
So the question still remains — will social networking sites become a tool for business to increaseproductivity, start small businesses, and develop larger organizations through market research? Maybe, but probably not.
To quote Tom Davenport, who holds the President’s Chair in Information Technology and Management at Babson College in Massachusetts, and formerly lectured at Harvard University: “I see no evidence that students andyoung adults — the audience for which these tools were originally intended — want to use the tools to do their business.”
The fact that many users go to these sites for relaxation and enjoyment leads me and others to believe that the use of social networking sites for business, other than advertising and marketing, is severely limited and not likely to take off anytime soon.