TechBurgher is pretty excited to bring you this post from jolly old England. Yeah, we’ve got people on the streets around the globe scraping up content for you.
John Buckman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant. And filed a pretty interesting report from this year’s Online Information conference in London.
For years, we’ve been watching our kids Facebook and Twitter each other, and more recently millions of their parents have joined Linkedin and other online networking services to schmooze for jobs and clients.
Now it’s time to harness the power of social networking to create organizational advantage by joining and influencing customers and constituents in their online communities, where brand reputations increasingly are being determined, and by leveraging knowledge and insight to turn them into opportunities for collaboration – even if that means management has to be willing to loosen up the hierarchy and give up some control.
You might say that social networking is growing up and going to work.
And a Squirrel Hill-based company, Vivisimo, is offering practical tools to add a social networking component to research across an enterprise, one part of the new puzzle.
Those were key takeaways from this year’s Online Information conference. The annual event is the world’s leading gathering of information professionals – corporate librarians, information brokers, competitive intelligence specialists and others, plus the vendors that serve them, attracting thousands from around the globe. And while it certainly isn’t news that social networking and the larger realm of social media are of keen interest in business circles these days, it was startling to this long-time conference attendee to see just how front and center they have become in the old-line information world.
Said Mt. Lebanon-native Marydee Ojala, the editor of professional magazine Online, “People are starting to understand the significance of social media and that collaboration isn’t just for kids. There are real business reasons to use it.”
Just a few years ago, London Online, as the show is known, was all about vast databases of aggregated content – news, scientific research, intellectual property and more – and software tools to assist in the searching and retrieval of nuggets of information (in an electronically stored newspaper article or doctorate dissertation, perhaps) needed for a specific purpose. In the old days, corporate and specialist librarians pretty much had these online retrieval systems to themselves because the search protocols and document management processes were often clunky and difficult to use. The evolution in the industry has been toward opening up access to the information through enterprise search systems that might, for example, allow all salespeople to directly search a database of news and background on clients and competitors while R&D staff might access repositories of patent documents and other high-end research.
Enterprise search continues, of course, and this year’s show had its share of new systems and processes on display. But a few things have happened along the way that has challenged the traditional information industry – free services on the Web, and now Web 2.0 and its ability to create dynamic, easily shared content.
It used to be, for example, that an information vendor might charge big bucks for access to a database of content aggregated from newspaper publishers around the world. Now you can do that for free on Google. In the field of scholarly scientific, technical and medical research, the push for so-called open access to peer-review research is also challenging the status quo.
Now comes the new focus, on the research side, on how to add social networking into enterprise search – let’s call it social searching.
Vivisimo offered a compelling, practical case for what can be done. It demonstrated its enterprise/social search service that allows users to enrich their retrieved materials by category tagging, free-text annotating, bookkeeping and sharing. Others in the organization, down the hall or a few time zones away, can access and track their colleagues’ work through dashboard-type functionality. That new, user-generated layer itself becomes an asset by allowing individuals – again, in the same building or half way around the world – to quickly identify pockets of expertise within an organization. And that can be a catalyst for sharing knowledge quickly and avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort. But that horizontal collaboration can skip over organizational boundaries, and that can be a threat to unenlightened management.
As Stacy Monarko, a Pittsburgh-based Vivisimo product manager said, “The next best idea may not come from the board room.”
On the marketing side of business life, the London conference had no shortage of speakers extolling the imperative to understand how social media is changing the way companies present themselves to the world.
As an editor of British trade publication New Media Age, put it, “Ads no longer drive sales. Opinions do.” He explained that, increasingly, buying decisions are based not on what a company says about itself but what others do.
Marketing is becoming, the editor said at a conference workshop, “no longer one-to-many or one-to-one but many-to-many.”
Which means, he explained, companies must figure out how to monitor, reach and motivate buyers and prospect on the interactive sites where they are congregating. “It’s a question of influencing the influencers.”
By way of example, the speaker pointed to a success enjoyed by Britain’s Royal Navy, whose traditional recruitment methods, primarily advertising, had failed to entice sufficient numbers of young men and women to sign up. The Navy knew that the most effective communications strategy was to have real-life sailors talk about their experiences but that approach was hard to scale. Along comes social media, which the Navy has embraced with gusto, setting up blog sites for sailors to post their individual stories and then linking to popular sites where the targeted age groups gather online. (Reader beware: I didn’t verify this story. Am just reporting what I heard.)
The Royal Navy is a big organization, or course, and that raises the question of whether a social networking strategy is only practical for a larger enterprise that has the resources to devote to it?
Not at all, said another speaker, a partner from the London office of KPMG. He said that smaller companies “don’t have the change management issues” that a large company might. “Small business can be more fleet of foot and have real clarity in their value proposition,” all of which can make for a more readily launched and successful social networking strategy.
The KPMG speaker talked of understanding today’s constituents as “digital tribes.”
We may just be beginning to see the long-term ramifications of social media.
A long-time information industry pundit (and friend), Steve Arnold, told me a story about his personal blog and his tracking the demise of a Danish search company. He says his readers across Scandinavia are contributing tidbits and gossip that he posts, long before it is published in the local business press. Ask yourself: Where’s the momentum here? Who’s in charge now?
Arnold, not by any means a wild-eyed fanatical proponent of the next big thing, says that this whole trend of democratization of information will transform business in the next five years, and the company to watch is Google.
“We all work for Google now,” he says, only partially in jest.
A final note. London can be bleak and dismal in December, with drizzle and early night fall, and this year’s online week had its share of that. The background of economic malaise — the U.K. is in as much doom and gloom as we are, with headlines screaming of layoffs and home repossessions – only adds to the pallor. Attendance at the show was down noticeably from previous years.
Still, there are bright spots. Beside Vivisimo, the other Pittsburgh organization exhibiting at the conference, the South Side-located publications office of the American Economic Association. Said Drucilla Ekwurzel, “With what’s happened in the economy, there’s more interest in our content. We’ve had more traffic than ever.”
Lesson learned in London this year: Social networking is a threat to those who resist it, an opportunity for organizational growth for those businesses that embrace it.