The phenomenal success of social networking sites (SNSs) in this era has driven everyone, from the 'publics' to celebrities to join in the bandwagon of virtual networking. It’s increasingly attracting the attention of academic and industrial organizations intrigued by their affordances and reach. Sites like Myspace, Facebook and Twitter have possibly written the biggest success stories so far. From 1997 to 2001, a number of community tools began supporting various combinations of profiles and publicly articulated friends. Primitive forms of social networking began with sites AsianAvenue, BlackPlanet, and MiGente allowed users to create personal, professional, and dating profiles—users could identify “Friends” on their personal profiles without seeking approval for those connections. Today social networking is a global phenomenon, thanks to the participation of individuals and group belonging to a mixture of demographics.
The scope of these SNSs however is not just confined to the typical activity of making and adding public profiles. Since it provides rich sources of naturalistic behavioral data, social networking has been adapted by various business organizations, corporate and small business operators to connect with and understand their target audiences. The converse is also true, of course, and complaints about products and services go viral very quickly. Profile and linkage data from SNSs can be gathered either through the use of automated collection techniques or through datasets provided directly from the company. This enables network analysis researchers to explore large-scale patterns of befriending, usage, and other visible indicators and continuing an analysis trend that started with examinations of blogs and other websites.
SNSs have proved to be a very effective tool for branding, image perception and building customer relations. These exponentially expanding webs of connections lead to viral communications. For instance, a customer’s uncommonly good experience with a company is no longer heard about just by that person’s four close friends, but by thousands. Therefore it’s of little wonder that companies are capitalizing on online social networking as a tool for marketing. Given the boom in popularity of social networks, enterprises of all stripes have started to look for ways to market their brands to potential customers through these services. Whether it is through online contests, coupon and discount offers or just an extended presence to shine positive light on brands, social networking has become a darling of the marketing world. A multitude of organizations have adapted social networking as a part of their contact-centers where they interact, guide and reconcile with their customers. With social networking usage providing insights to various behavioral patterns, the phenomenon has also aided substantially to scalability. Many utilities and governments use outbound alert and notification technologies to reach their constituents during exceptional occurrences or for planned occurrences.
It has also been argued that social media has led to the democratization of media, thanks to its widespread and unfiltered participation from people all over the world. Technologies like blogging and micro-blogging has changed the face of publishing. Apart from making friends, building relationships, the trend has given forth to a re-mix of culture and scopes of individual creativity. These virtual communities assemble people from various backgrounds to embrace their common passions and interests as well as share the same. With many government bodies resorting to social media to connect with ‘publics’, has fostered transparency and awareness.
Social Media or Social Networking however is not free from criticism. It is argued that with a massive boom of content and information overload a lot of useful and rich content goes unnoticed. Technologies have been devised to monitor and filter content, but they have enjoyed only limited success so far. There have also been instances where some sites are banned in some organizations and even countries, with the argument that these sites trigger loss of productivity, promote unsuitable content, polarization or even hate.
Other challenges faced by Social Media interaction include factors like geography, lingo, religious sentiment etc. There are social networks with strengths in particular geographies and among speakers of certain languages, or among special interest communities: social networks for members of specific religious communities or for artists. For example, Orkut was never accepted well in the US but countries like Brazil and India where its popularity soared. When it comes down to the lingo or the length of the message, Twitter is a brilliant example. With only 140 characters as the maximum length, tweets are required to be short, crisp and yet comprehensible to its users. Creating such a message is equally challenging and fulfilling.
However, with more challenges the opportunities for IT vendors are on the rise. Companies are on the constant lookout for technologies to monitor content and behavioral patterns. Moreover, social networks, themselves, are subject to extreme ‘faddishness’ as they have a very short-lived shelf space. Three or four years ago, any discussion of social networking would likely have focused on Friendster and MySpace, today they have been taken over by Facebook and Twitter. Some sites are striving to become long-lasting players and may expand their services into other areas. As such technology vendors play a crucial role in upgrading and revamping these sites and keeping them ahead of the competition. The concept of outsourcing social media activities to technology vendors is also slowly surfacing, which could prove to be grand success story for IT companies.
Despite its pros and cons, social networking has redefined networking and proved its vantage over other media. The trick to stay afloat in social networking landscape for vendors is to not to put too much weight behind any single network. Social networking and not the social network itself is what enables a new form of customer-company communication.