How to tame the social network at work

What you don't know -- or refuse to learn -- about social networking could undermine your business

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A big difference between social media and typical online support channels is "the viral nature of a positive experience," says Parature founder Duke Chung. "When someone posts on a Facebook wall or uses our live chat and gets an answer to their question, we give them the option to share that experience with their friends. They can say, 'I just got my answer and now I'm back to learning Japanese faster than ever,' and 500 of their friends see it. It lets Rosetta's customers market their great experiences via Facebook streams."

The other big advantage, says Rosetta Stone senior vice president Jay Topper, is how much data companies can glean from sites like Facebook -- for absolutely free.

"Companies spend so much money trying to get information from their customers, while places like Facebook are essentially a free 24/7 focus group where every day thousands of people are providing you with a constant flow of information," he says. "It's mind-boggling how much you could mine from this."

Taming the social network: Your own private social network

Of course, you probably don't want your product road map being retweeted by Ashton Kutcher. You don't really need 10,000 people on Facebook to "like" ideas your development team is still mulling. It's usually not smart to post photos from company parties on Flickr or MySpace. Public social networks are poor solutions for a great many things.

But if you want the benefits of social nets -- collaboration across geographies, instant feedback, and real-time communication -- without the risks associated with public exposure, a private social network may be just the ticket.

For example, AT&T uses Spigit's social media technology to create a mass virtual water cooler for the telecom giant. About 45,000 employees -- roughly one-sixth of AT&T's global workforce -- participate in The Innovation Pipeline, its online brainstorming community. The company has already implemented one idea suggested by employees: creating a TV channel that shows the differences between HDTV and normal resolution, to help AT&T sell high-definition programming packages to its broadband U-Verse customers. Several more are in development, says Patrick Asher, innovation leader for the company.

If an idea is too good -- or such a no-brainer that it deserves immediate implementation -- company executives can pull it from Spigit sites before it leaks to competitors, notes Spigit CEO Paul Pluschkell.

"It's all about bringing ideas to market that much quicker," he says. "Until you execute on it, an idea is just an idea."

Gaming network IGN Entertainment uses Yammer, a hosted social networking service, to collaborate and comment on each others' ideas. It began when a single IGN engineer signed up for Yammer and now has spread virally to the entire company, says Greg Silva, vice president of HR. As the geeks critique, management can see who's contributing which ideas, and gauge how engaged they are with the company and the industry as a whole.

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