If you still think Facebook is for twentysomethings clinging to their college years and Twitter is for people with too much time on their hands announcing what they had for breakfast, think again.
Watch a slideshow of the top 12 Twitter tools.Read about private Twitter alternatives.
Social networks like Facebook (150 million users), Twitter (4.4 million users) and LinkedIn (34 million users) are some of the fastest growing sites on the Internet and they're not being used for aimless chitchat or sharing the latest gossip. (Read a related story on the 12 CIOs who Twitter.)
We're talking busy IT professionals using social networks for serious IT business -- everything from customer service to marketing a product to marketing themselves to keeping up with industry news to getting fast answers to a technical question.
According to a Network World survey of 583 IT execs, 84% said they visit social networking sites on a regular basis, up from 68% last year. In fact, half of our respondents said they visit a social networking site at least several times a week. Only 29% said they visit social networking sites solely for entertainment purposes, and 64% said they are using social networks more than they did a year ago. (Watch a slideshow of 12 tips to safe social networking.)
LinkedIn is the most popular site among IT pros, with 63% of respondents saying they use it, followed by 44% who say they are on Facebook and 14% who use Twitter.
While there are hundreds of social networks out there (Bebo, Plaxo, Plurk, FriendFeed and Jaiku to name a few), most people stick to the big three: Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Comcast (Twitter: @comcastcares) might be the standard when it comes to using Twitter to help customers in need. Long derided for bad customer service, the company is turning that around with its Twitter efforts. Twitter about any Comcast-related issue and you'll likely receive a reply in a few minutes asking if they can help. You can do the same.
Jason Williams, (twitter: @whastupgold) product manager for WhatsUpGold at Ipswitch Software, usesTwitter in a similar fashion to Comcast. He has set up search terms related to his business that he monitors via an RSS feed. If he picks up on a Tweet that might be relevant, he hits reply to engage the person in conversation. "It's a little more of a personal approach," Williams says.
"I've been able to connect with some existing customers as well as people who have Tweeted about network management solutions," Williams says. "I've even gotten a few people to trial our software."
A relatively new feature to LinkedIn is its Groups function, which allows members to share information around a common topic or interest. Set up a group for your company and invite customers and fellow employees to share tips and keep up to date on the latest news coming from your organization.
Facebook offers similar group and fan page (see Network World's Twisted Pair fan club) functions. Members can post comments, photos and more to the site. One caveat to Facebook groups is a lack of notification when something new is published. You have to check back often to see if anything new or interesting is published.
It's not all about your employer. All social networks blur the line between work and personal, which means you can use these networks to build your own brand.
"There's an opportunity lost by not being on the larger social networks," says Dan Schawbel, a social media specialist at EMC and author of the upcoming book on personal branding titled "Me 2.0". "People are already searching for other people. Recruiters are looking to fill a void. If they don't come across your name, you'll miss out."
Schawbel equates one's presence on social networks as a living resume that can show both your professional skills as well as everything else you do in life. "You're painting a picture of who you are," he says.
Search engine optimization techniques help put company sites higher up in search results pages. Schawbel says you can use similar techniques to improve your search engine ranking by linking your multiple social profiles together. This is particularly important on Twitter and LinkedIn, where your information is more easily trolled by search engine crawlers. If you have a blog, make sure your various profiles link to it, thereby increasing your search engine worthiness. Facebook is a walled garden and the information within is not as easily indexable, but is nonetheless valuable because it can function as a "mailing list" when you're looking for a job or opportunity.
Building such a network does not happen overnight and should be done over time. "If you forge the relationship over time, then you are seen as a contributor to the community so more people are apt to help you out," Schawbel says.
On the flip side, the blurring of the personal/business boundary in social networks can have negative ramifications if the wrong things are posted. Common sense advice from Nina Buik, president of HP's Connect user community: "Look ahead 10 years from now, whatever you post on [a social network] now; will you be happy with in 10 years?"
Got a technical question that needs answering? If you have a big enough following on Twitter or Facebook and/or belong to certain groups on LinkedIn, posing your question to these groups can be a timesaver.
"2,200 people are following me in some way and any given time I put something out there, some percentage of those folks are paying attention and may answer," says Dan York, director of emerging communications technology at Voxeo. He adds that he can save hours of time by posting a question to his Twitter network, which helped him solve a vexing Wordpress mirroring issue recently.
Social networks can also be used to get a feel for how different industries handle technical and business issues. "I am very interested to get the CIO perspective from outside the legal environment," says Jeffrey Brandt, chief information and knowledge officer at the Washington, DC-based law firm Crowell & Moring. Brandt belongs to a number of knowledge management and CIO-related groups on LinkedIn and finds "a lot of people's thought processes are amazing."
RSS feeds getting to be too much? Twitter and its many associated applications can help you keep tabs on the world around you or at least direct your attention to what is most important.
"It's an attention lens for me," York explains. "I follow a certain number of people that I have deemed to be authorities in their realms, so their links are of interest to me."
Many news sites offer Twitter feeds as a way to catch up on headlines of the day without having to browse a site or delve into an overflowing RSS reader. "I saw Nortel was filing for bankruptcy first on Twitter," says Wayne Bogan, CTO of Spirit Telecom in Columbia, SC., who has his BlackBerry set to check his Twitter feed once per minute to stay in tuned to what is happening.
During a December 2008 ice storm that knocked power out to more than 300,000 customers, Public Service of New Hampshire (twitter: @psnh) used Twitter to deliver status updates on how many customers were still without power and the progress that was being made. For those with limited 'net connections, the updates proved invaluable.
Social networks can also be used to keep tabs on your vendors. Brandt, who takes great care of his LinkedIn "Rolodex", caught a vendor off guard when he asked them who his new sales person was after the last one left. Brandt noted the departure through a change in the person's LinkedIn status. The vendor, it seemed, did not know the guy had left.
You don't have to be on a social network 24 hours a day to enjoy the benefits. Keeping your profile up to date on LinkedIn, staying in touch with former colleagues on Facebook and jumping into the occasional conversation on Twitter is enough to build your social network persona and might find you that perfect hire for a job opening or provide the answer to a vexing question.
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