Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Ultimate Networks

For some odd reason (Facebook anyone?), I celebrated New Year’s Eve embroiled in a heated conversation debating the merits (or lack thereof) of on-line social networks. One side of the argument was defended by very accomplished academics and the other by very successful and pragmatic business folks.

I don’t intend to recant all the details of this rather entertaining argument, but instead I’ll attempt to net-it-out while sharing with you my vision of how to make good use of these networks in a - social media- marketing context.

Of course, this enlightened crowd was well aware of the fact that new media can generate a non-local community and that this phenomenon isn’t new at all! In fact, if Wikipedia has it right, scholars associated with the Royal Society of London had already formed a community through the exchange of letters in the 17th century.

My objective, in the conversation, was to move past the theory of social networks and explore the use of today’s electronic social networks as tools for business. I don’t know about you, but I have neither the interest, nor the time to write notes on Facebook’s walls or share my daily activities on Twitter. There is way too much clutter and noise as it is!

My interest in professional social networks was first triggered some time ago when I was deeply involved in designing customer satisfaction and customer reference programs at Oracle and Siebel Systems. Invariably, the results, of these then state-of-the-art programs were very structured, contrived and certainly not real-time… Yes, they made great slides and gave an impression of control, however, the fact is that such programs are expensive, infrequently conducted, do not always distinguish between buyers, users or other influencers, are of very limited use for timely fixes of problems or for product development, and most certainly are a huge pain to customers.

My vision is to replace these static, non-interactive, memory-less programs by leveraging modern social network platforms. [I’m using platform in the sense of open APIs that run in the environment created by the social network (Facebook, Linkedin)]. As we develop these newly conceived programs across multiple social networks we should be able to identify lurkers, novices, regulars or other change agents and leaders, as well as, implicit or explicit unmet customer needs. Imagine: No need to get IT involved, no extra budget, self declared participation, and always-on interaction with your customers, very cool indeed!

I got the feeling that several in the conversation thought that some of these needs were already being addressed via the traditional technical on-line support groups, as well as, by public forums like Dell’s “Idea Storm” (www.ideastorm.com) and Salesforce’s “Success Force” (success.salesforce.com). Some also felt that the presently available tools like dynamic network analysis (DNA) and multi-agent systems (MAS) are only suited for very large networks. Perhaps my friends are correct and the currently available statistical tools do not lend themselves well to the analysis of smaller social networks. And certainly, “Idea Storm” and “Success Force” are steps in the right direction.

However, I’m still convinced that once social network portability takes hold we will be able to develop and use a suite of analytical applications that will help us better understand the quality and intensity of the relationships between network participants, as well as, brand sentiment and the role of influencers in shaping opinions. More important however, is that the potential benefit to business of such digital interaction optimization applications is huge! So, rather than waiting for Facebook, Linkedin and others to agree on a “Social Network Interop Protocol”and extend their applications, let’s use current web2.0 tools like Ning, Scout Labs, Umbria, Omniture, Google Analytics and other widgets to deploy the new CRM and create competitive advantage!

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