In times of rapidly evolving technologies, digital divides have fragmented many companies' abilities to keep up with the advent of social networking via sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which offer new dimensions to viral advertising, product support and rapport with the customer. Traditional, old guard tech companies such as Dell and Nokia have branched out from their typical web page store fronts into frontier social networks in an attempt to bridge the distance between themselves and the consumers. The jury is still out on the impact of these attempts to become more readily accessible and more transparent to end users; however, with Facebook surpassing Google as the most visited site on the Internet, businesses are scrambling to their battle stations to rethink their net strategies to harness the maximum potential of this lucrative but wild market. Let's examine how businesses have traditionally conducted business on the Internet.

Photo by Marc Smith

The Traditional Way

In the traditional, web-based business model prevalent since the mid-1990s, companies follow these basic steps to expose themselves to a web audience.
  • Hire a designer to create a website introducing the company's products, with general contact information and an online payment system to make purchases via the website.
  • Attempt to boost search engine results through search engine optimization.
  • Pay advertisers such as Google or Yahoo for display and targeted ads in the hope that traffic will be funneled their way.
  • Have the designer update the website through e-mail correspondence, or in house, accordingly.
This method is time-consuming, costly, and offers no guarantee of increased traffic or purchases. Often times a small company still needs to rely heavily on trade shows and other promotional activities in order to attract a word-of-mouth interest to build a client and customer base.

The New Way

Forward-thinking companies who liberally use Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have changed web business with several effective measures.

1. Companies now use their Facebook pages as real-time forums and tech support areas, and use the "Like" button to connect to users' news feeds to their latest news, product launches and exclusive discounts. This in turn promotes the company's product to all the users' friends via the news feed, spreading through the social network with a viral effect, for free.
2. Viral advertising effects from Facebook in the form of games, and video clips on Youtube freely offer companies a much more viable alternative to spending money on advertising which may or not reach their intended targets.

3. Companies connected to the social network tend to have a much faster reaction time to bad news and criticisms than traditionally modeled Internet storefronts. In this regard, users often feel a higher degree of familiarity with the company, as its status appears in a news feed alongside their social networking friends and tend to foster a more positive opinion of the company and its products.

Arming Yourself for the Final Frontier

While this new way of conducting web business has its clear advantages, the shock of the sudden, direct and uncensored exposure to the wilderness of the social networking jungle may be jarring for any business attempting this shift. So how can you, as a business owner, make this transition with your company's reputation intact?

1. Before registering your Facebook and Twitter pages, make sure your company knows its position on hot button issues, such as criticized products or controversial business decisions. Rehearse how to react to such criticisms, and make sure the staff in charge of the social networking branch of your operations is on the same page.

2. Consult with your advertising or PR department regarding the online persona your company wishes to personify online, and maintain professional consistency. Is your company fun, caring, or cutting edge?

3. Keep up a high frequency of social status updates to maintain followers' interest. Staying in the news feed weekly keeps social networkers engaged by staying on top of the dogpile of updates the average user receives daily.

4. Be able to react quickly to Facebook comments or Twitter tweets to create a close personal presence to the customer.

5. Hire app designers to create Facebook applications which promote your product, or pay Facebook game designers such as Zynga or Playfish to include your company's virtual products in the game for instant viral advertising.

Social Networking in the Workplace

Now that your business has dipped its toes in the fast shifting maze of social networks, it may be a wise investment of time to build a social network via Facebook in your office. While this will no doubt have many co-workers hiding from the dreaded "Friend Request from your boss", networking your workplace via Facebook can be a wise tactical decision for several reasons.

1. By creating a private workplace group on Facebook, it is faster to schedule events and share links, files (via off-site cloud computing storage), and feedback in a closed group with your co-workers. This system allows for efficiency and clarity with a shared calendar and core resource base.

2. By allowing your workers to "friend" each other online, there is a better chance that employees in otherwise unassociated departments within your company will begin to mingle more and boost morale. However, this can also have the adverse effect of lowering morale if there are persistent problems within your company.

3. The power of building a social networking web to tie in all your employees offers you, as a manager, a bird's eye view of their interactions and an easier way to gauge their morale and work ethic. This allows you to launch preemptive strikes against growing problems, while understanding more of your employees' everyday lives, which bridges the often times wide chasm between management and employees. Many managers may find this approach too eerily "Big Brother" for their tastes and may shy away from such tactics. This is, however, the reality of the changes that the marriage of social networking and businesses has created.

Be Mindful of Your Followers

On a closing note, it is also of paramount importance that you separate your social networking groups appropriately. Often times business users will use LinkedIn and Twitter for business contacts, much like a business card, while using Facebook for personal friends and family. If the lines blur between these networks, you may divulge too much of yourself to your employees or business partners. Social networking is a powerful tool that spreads information wildly and unexpectedly, but learning to wield its power for your company may strengthen it both internally and externally.