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How your business can benefit from it

The explosion of social networking sites such as Facebook (FB) and Twitter has opened up an entirely new sphere of life, a parallel Matrix-like universe if you will. Frequent visitors to these on-line domains have created their own worlds.

Their pictures and up-to-the-minute status reports are meant to reflect images of themselves as social gadflies, 'blinging' out in the latest fashion and swinging with the in-crowd or else they portray themselves as all-knowing seers, casually dropping their pearls of wisdom through their postings on us mere peons. I could have missed it, but have yet to see a FaceBook 'friend' post a seriously 'pop-dung' picture of himself. Short of photo-shopping, most FB images of the user are poster-chic.

Their real-life day-to-day existence may seem meaningless and drab to them, and this newly discovered world helps them to redefine and reconstruct how the world outside their office and bedroom doors sees them. Because social networking sites are not going anywhere anytime soon, businesses and others have begun to ask how can their company benefit from this shift in media avenues and why do otherwise sane people spend so much time on these websites?

Harvard Business School professor Mikolaj Jan Piskorski has spent many years studying social networks and has "developed surprising findings about the needs that they fulfil, how men and women use these services differently, and how Twitter - the newest kid on the block - is sharply different from forerunners such as Facebook and MySpace. He has also applied many of the insights to help companies develop strategies for leveraging these various online entities for profit," says a paper authored by Sean Silverstone and published on September 29, 2009 by Harvard Business School's 'Working Knowledge'.

In the course of his research Professor Piskorski discovered that people spend much time on these websites looking at pictures - mainly other peoples pictures. "People just love to look at pictures," says Piskorski. "That's the killer app of all online social networks. Seventy per cent of all actions are related to viewing pictures or viewing other people's profiles." In other words, we here in Jamaica which has a huge and growing FaceBook population should really re-name it 'FassBook' and make it really live up to its name.

Ask the candid people-watchers and they will tell you that nothing 'full belly' more than a complete and unfettered knowledge of 'other people's business'. The information might never make a difference in your life ever, but there is just a secret satisfaction and an innate craving some people have for wanting to peer into the privacy of the other man's secret space. So the FB wall-crawlers will stealthily befriend you and keep track of your every move. They themselves never post personal information or come on FB using some weird acronym, but are all up in your 'kool-aid' even more than granulated sugar.

Unlike Twitter which limits posts to 140 characters, the lure of photos, allows "a form of voyeurism", says Piskorski. "In real life there is a strong norm against prying into other people's lives. But online enables "a very delicate way for me to pry into your life without really prying," the researcher says. "Harvard undergrads do it all the time. They know all about each other before they meet face to face. 'Oh, you're that guy that did that internship in DC last summer." Piskorski also theorises that people who post pictures of themselves can show they are having fun and are popular without having to boast. The researcher also found "deep gender differences in the use of sites". He reported that "the biggest usage categories are men looking at women they don't know, followed by men looking at women they do know. Women looking at other women they know. Overall, women receive two-thirds of all page views."

How can businesses harness this tool of our self-absorbed generation? He points to the issue that corporate communicators and marketers think of social networks as social media and depend on the 'click thru' factor as a way of measuring its effectiveness.
"It doesn't work that way," he posits. "For one thing, findings show that people don't click through on advertising on social networks. A good analogy is to imagine sitting at a table with friends when a stranger pulls up a chair, sits down, and tries to sell you something while you are talking to your friends. You will not get far with a strategy like this.
"To be successful, you need to shift your mindset from social media to social strategy," he continues. A good social strategy essentially uses the same principles that made online social networks attractive in the first place - by solving social failures in the offline world. Firms should begin to do the same and help people fulfil their social needs online.

To continue the earlier analogy, "You should come to the table and say, 'Here is a product that I have designed for you that is going to make you all better friends.' To execute on this, firms will need to start making changes to the products themselves to make them more social, and leverage group dynamics, using technologies such as Facebook Connect. But I don't see a lot of that yet. I see (businesses) saying, 'Let's talk to people on Twitter or let's have a Facebook page or let's advertise.' And these are good first steps but they are nowhere close to a social strategy." I found most of this article very insightful and practical and if you are interested I would encourage you to visit and read the findings at: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/ 6156.html.


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