Social networking management

Barney Beal, News Director
12 Mar 2009

Despite their rapid rise and evolution, social networks or Web 2.0 technologies are still very new to most organizations, which are struggling with how to incorporate them into their business.

Online communities are providing real returns for companies willing to invest, but there are still plenty of challenges -- and plenty of hype -- around them, according to John Ragsdale, research director with the Service and Support Professionals Association (SSPA).

'Among SSPA members, I would say it's evenly divided with marketing versus support,' he said. 'I don't know how you define ownership, but I do think marketing has a critical role. Companies that launch an online community without some ownership from marketing are setting themselves up for failure.'

Building an online community presents a number of challenges beyond ownership. Given the state of the economy, the case for ROI is a vague one, Ragsdale argues in a recent research note. That is not helped by some of the market's software and service vendors overstating their case with claims that don't add up in the real world. For example, messages in an online community do not equal a one-to-one reduction in calls into customer support.

'There's a big misunderstanding between demand for support and demand for assisted support,' Ragsdale said. 'People go to forums to learn about products, to see what people are talking about, as training -- for a lot of different reasons. You can't assume that because they went to your forum, they're not going to pick up the phone and call you.'

Branding is also a concern. Given that most people begin their product research at Google, when a top result is people discussing a problem with your product -- it can have a big impact. It is of extreme importance to work on search engine optimization for the forums. If an organization is not hosting the conversation itself, someone else will.

'There is an amazing amount of content out there, and it's not on the company's corporate website,' Ragsdale said. 'The danger for firms that haven't launched anything at all is they have allowed a community to form without any involvement from them[selves].'

Business-to-business companies that already have an assigned relationship between the support group and specific customers because of agreements and defined relationships are better able to launch a community run by support, Ragsdale said.

San Francisco-based has launched a service aimed at reaching existing communities that it terms Service in the Cloud. It features integration capabilities for its service-and-support application, Facebook, and its own community-building software.

'Something in the Salesforce announcement about Service in the Cloud that I liked was that if you do have an existing community someplace, you can leverage it there,' Ragsdale said.

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