Should businesses make friends with Facebook?

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I love Facebook and I’d certainly be one of the thousands of people joining an “I’m ****** off that work has banned Facebook” group if I were to be separated from my beloved profile.  Don’t get me wrong (boss!), I’m not on it all the time, but it’s a quick and easy way of keeping in touch with just about anyone and everyone.  My personal love for Facebook aside, why shouldn’t employers ban social networking sites – surely the clue is in the name, they’re a social exercise and nothing more? However, BBC news online has reported that research commissioned by Orange urges bosses to embrace social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo or risk ignoring potential customers.

They’re right: in theory there are lots of benefits to the use of social networks for business.  They can provide organisations, especially larger ones, with a perfect forum for discussing and developing plans and ideas.  In a broader sense, without even interacting with other members of these sites it provides the opportunity to observe how other organisations, or even individual employees are going about their business and allows you to learn from them.  Participation in social networks is also an excellent way to drag the luddites of a company into the 21st century.  In this day and age there’s absolutely no room for an employee not willing to embrace this kind of technology, especially in PR.   Like them or not, for whatever purpose, social networks are one of today’s main forms of communication – and to ignore them is to ignore millions upon millions of people, including valued employees and potential customers.

The news that Orange is developing its own in-house social networking platform is probably due to the fact that there needs to be an element of control when using these sites to shape business plans and ideas.  Facebook in particular is more of a personal space than a business network and it could be argued that it should remain this way.  Orange is taking the right approach by creating its own version for its personal business aims.

However, while Orange has the resources to develop its own social networking site, many businesses do not.  Smaller businesses can utilize existing technologies to develop their own ideas. Existing tools such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace are very useful, as it’s a good idea to piggyback off technologies already in place. Why re-invent the wheel? Start small by creating a company Facebook group and encourage the exchange of organisational goals and conversation.

Social networks are impossible to ignore for any industry and nor should they be.  For PR especially, they are potentially invaluable for targeting the consumer as they now represent an important addition to traditional media.  However, it may not be as easy as that – users of these sites are extremely savvy: they don’t want employers or big organisations muscling in on what they see as their space (MySpace had it right!).  Social networking is an extremely powerful and effective tool, but be careful, you don’t want 10,000 members forming a group to berate your organisation for breaking those sacred unspoken rules.  Encourage employees to use the sites –  you’ll need to understand them inside out in order to exploit them fully.