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7/13/2006
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Social Networking Sites For Businesses Set To Take Off

As MySpace.com shows, people love to talk about themselves. Offering this opportunity to customers will give businesses a competitive edge.

Like Soylent Green, the Internet is made of people. And people are social by nature, as can be inferred from the popularity of social networking site MySpace.com, which this week became the most visited site on the Internet, according to Hitwise.com.

Yet businesses have been slow to catch the social networking wave. Despite the increased visibility of services like Plaxo, LinkedIn, and Visible Path over the past few years, which facilitate interpersonal connections through the exchange of contact information, they don't quite offer up the intimate online interaction that drives consumer-oriented social networking sites.

Sites and software that drive lead generation, jobs, and deals--the payoff for corporate social networking--have their place. But for businesses looking to engage customers online and to keep them coming back, building a social networking environment could become a necessity, if only to keep users from interacting elsewhere.

That's clearly what netizens are doing at sites like MySpace and on the roughly 40 million blogs that blog search engine Technorati.com tracks. If the past 10 years online have any lesson, it's that people never tire of talking about themselves.

Car information site Edmunds.com has been nurturing its online community since 1997 using online discussion forums. In February, it deployed WebCrossing Neighbors, collaboration software company Web Crossing's private-label social networking platform, to power its new automotive social networking site, CarSpace.com.

The benefit of white-label or private-label technology, says Sylvia Marino, senior director of CarSpace, has to do with keeping control of customer data. "You own that information," she explains. "We weren't interested in sharing registration information or anything else with any other party."

It's also a matter of burnishing the corporate brand. "They [Edmunds.com] don't want people talking about cars on MySpace or Facebook," explains Michael Krieg, VP of sales at Web Crossing. "They want people talking about cars on the Edmunds site."

Internet users continue to talk about all manner of things on discussion sites. But with the phenomenal popularity of social networking sites, it now seems that companies focused on fostering discussion are emphasizing the wrong aspect of interaction: People want to share information about themselves as much as about the topics they're discussing.

That's where social networking sites excel. They provide tools to express one's self alongside one's opinions.

"Rather than having the forums, which is typically the center of the community, really to us the social network is just flipping that community inside out, putting people at the center rather than the discussion," says Marino.

But WebCrossing Neighbors offers more than people-centric discussion. Like MySpace, it's a tool for self-expression as much as interpersonal communication. It encompasses blog-like personal publishing, friend lists for keeping up with associates, shareable photo albums, Web-based file sharing, integrated instant messaging, and a calendar.

WebCrossing Neighbors starts at $195 per month as a hosted ASP service. At some point next year, Web Crossing may offer its software under licenses for internal corporate installation.

Before dismissing social networking as a tool for teen navel gazing, consider the value of keeping online visitors happy, or simply keeping them at your site. As Marino sees it, community pays.

"We've actually always had an ROI on our community," Marino explains. She describes the value of community as an internal metric that measures the worth of a member based on page views, posts, and Internet traffic those posts generate through search engines.

"Always, being closer to your customer is better," Marino says. "And allowing customers to provide support and information to each other in the long run makes your brand better than not having that type of support and information sharing."

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