Q&A: The Role of Social Networks in the Enterprise

Your employees are comfortable with social networks. How can those networks be turned to your business advantage?

More employee time is being spent on social networks -- whether for personal or business use. Are social networks the next communication tool? For perspective on the growing use of social networks in the enterprise, we contacted Curtis McEntire, founder of Mazree, a B2B social network that combines free, essential, B2B collaboration tools and social capabilities to be launched November 13.

Enterprise Strategies: What benefits does a social network have for the enterprise? What benefits are there for the vendor?

Curtis McEntire: There is significant value in having an effective social network that can connect a company with its suppliers, its customers, and its peers. As we all know, it comes down to the one fundamental question for the enterprise and its suppliers: "Will it improve my bottom line?" Yes it will, and here's how. The social network:

  • Enables companies to strategically message key information to broad or target audiences
  • Improves company collaboration
  • Assists in keeping customer and supplier contact information up-to-date
  • Enables users to easily search for and connect with each other
  • Provides a platform for companies to showcase their company, their products and services, and their people.

How is a social network better than other forms of communication (such as e-mail)?

In contrast to e-mail, fax, phone, and face-to-face conversations -- or even blogs -- a social network brings something the others cannot: reach and reaction. E-mail blasts are often trapped by spam filters. Faxes are often just thrown away. Phone and face-to-face conversations have limited participants. Blogs are not in front of your target audience every day.

A social network allows a user or company to reachits target audiences with its strategic messages. In turn, the audience has the ability to cooperatively or competitively react to that message. For example, a health-care company has a goal to standardize its products during 2013 and is looking for help from its 5,000+ suppliers. Instead of sending a private e-mail to each supplier, or having a face-to-face conversation with each supplier, the health-care company could post its goal within the network and receive immediate insight from interested suppliers.

Why is a social network more efficient for the enterprise?

I believe that social networks have succeeded among individuals and will succeed among companies for two primary reasons.

First, it's about sharing. Some people love to share things such as their snapshots from their vacation. They want to tell you what they did today. Others are interested in viewing what's being shared. This concept is no different in business.

Companies are interested in sharing – to showcase their company, their products and services, and their people. Likewise, companies are also interested in viewing what others share to identify best practices, market trends, and key company information. Companies are eager to share and eager to learn. A social network is an efficient place to do both.

Second, a social network offers one place for everyone. It wasn't too long ago when a person's best chance to find a long lost friend was to search the phone book. Now, a social network brings everyone together in one place: to search for, connect with, and engage with each other.

Companies are desperately in need of similar functionality. I recently spoke with a well-established construction company that hired temporary employees to call every supplier in their database to update their contact information. The project cost $30,000. The company later told me, "We shouldn't be in the business of managing other people's information." If social networks have changed the way information is available for individuals, the same can be said for companies.

How does a social network improve the quality of business opportunities?

I'd like to use my wife as an example to better answer this question. Together with my mother, she owns and manages a small shutter manufacturing company in Salt Lake City. She purchases all of her wood through the same, familiar companies. How does she know if she's getting the best deal or even the best quality?

If my wife had access to a social network where she could connect with all potential suppliers, she would have more options and a better understanding of the market. She could see peer ratings of wood suppliers, post comments, and easily request pricing from new and existing companies. My wife could easily find and select the right partners for her small business.

Every day, businesses are selling to and buying from other businesses. The process should not be -- and does not have to be -- so manual, so inefficient, and so time consuming. A social network built for businesses, with tools for businesses, can enable both buyers and sellers to find and realize those improved quality business opportunities.

Why has social network adoption been slow for many companies?

The adoption of the social network for B2B companies has been slow because businesses have traditionally lacked a tool that was truly built to connect them. In a recent study, Accenture found that nearly two-thirds of companies consider social media to be an "extremely" important channel for customer interaction. Despite this perception, only 8 percent of B2B companies are heavily leveraging social media today.

As a result, companies are trying to leverage B2C or other networks to engage in what are clearly B2B activities. Companies today are spending significant time, effort, and money trying to reach a non-existent audience because they are trying to leverage the wrong networks. Successful networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Yammer all have specific audience types. Members on LinkedIn are trying to build their own professional network for their own career development. Facebook users are interested in staying up-to-date with friends and family. Yammer members want to leverage Yammer's impressive internal collaboration tools.

Where is the social network built solely to facilitate, manage, and improve the company to company relationship? It doesn't exist. As a result, social network adoption for most B2B companies has been slow or even non-existent. Who can blame them?

Within a company, who should be in charge of leveraging the social network?

The question about "who" should always be driven by the "why"? Why is your company on this social network in the first place?

  • Is it to increase sales and brand awareness? Then it should probably be led by someone in marketing or sales.
  • Is it to encourage employee collaboration and develop your company culture? Then it should probably be led be someone in HR.
  • Is it to more effectively manage and stay up-to-date with your supply base? Then it should be led by someone in your supply chain department.

Regardless of who manages a company's social network(s), companies must be willing to commit the resources necessary to effectively leverage the network. Companies that are unwilling to dedicate resources to the social network will get out of it what they put into it -- nothing. If managed well by the right people, the value can significantly outweigh the investment.

What are the primary elements that should drive a company's social network strategy?

I believe it comes down to the basic questions: Who, why, what, and how?

  • Who is the audience? A company must know and have access to its target audience within the social network.
  • Why a social network? The company must determine why it will benefit from a social network.
  • What is the company trying to accomplish? Once the "why" is determined, specific goals should be set in relation to the "why."
  • How will the company accomplish its objectives? With objectives defined, the company needs to define how to accomplish those objectives.

What are the biggest mistakes enterprises make when implementing a social network? What best practices can you recommend to avoid these mistakes?

The biggest mistakes are that they have unclear objectives for the social network, lack the commitment necessary to make it successful, and have a poorly defined (or even undefined) social network strategy.

To avoid making these mistakes, I believe that every company should have a clear leader to drive the social network within the company. The company needs someone in charge of implementing and leading the company's social network objectives.

What primary elements are lacking to make a social network more successful for B2B?

Traditional and familiar social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Yammer are not built for the B2B space. A B2B social network should be centered on the primary reason that brings companies together: buying and selling. Existing networks lack the fundamentals related to that purpose:

  • Company profiles on a B2B social network should revolve around the company, not an individual user.
  • Connections should be company-to-company, enabling companies to connect with their suppliers, peers, and customers rather than individuals connecting with other individuals.
  • To be successful and appeal to the user, a B2B social network must offer enterprises more than just the ability to connect and post content. The network should provide effective B2B tools that can help companies improve their own efficiency and profitability.

What product or service does Mazree offer to facilitate social networking?

The Mazree network combines robust social capabilities and B2B collaboration tools to simplify and enhance the key supply chain processes and interactions that occur between buying and selling organizations. On Mazree:

  • Organizations can search for or showcase extensive, easy-to-access company information, ratings and reviews, products and services, company news, and contact information.
  • Businesses can easily manage and monitor relationships with their buyers or suppliers through contact lists, custom groups, messaging, event calendaring, and notes features.
  • Businesses can request pricing and product information, post official RFPs, receive and analyze responses, and share ideas that lead to opportunities.

In providing these capabilities, Mazree lowers costs for buyers, increases revenues for sellers, and enhances the efficiency of managing supply chain relationships for both groups.

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