Facebook — a breakthrough in business networking or a waste of time and resources?
Like it or loathe it, social networking has moved past the teenage audience and into the office with sites such as Facebook giving it some grown-up credibility.
Some SME managers like Karen Walshe (pictured) of DEAF (Dublin Electronic Arts Festival, http://www.deafireland.com/) Ireland and Eamonn Grant of Flowers Made Easy (http://www.flowersmadeeasy.ie) are drumming up business on these sites through sales and branding but many more are afraid of what their employees are doing on sites such as Facebook during office hours.
Ask any internet consultant and they will tell you the business merits of social networking, but according to Patricia Callan, director of the Small Firms Association (SFA), the reality is these sites are draining a business of productivity.
“We estimated that if employees with access to internet and email misused this for 10 minutes a day this is a cost of €575m per annum to business,” she says.
Callan agrees that in terms of social networking sites specifically, this figure can be bumped up.
The SFA figures are backed by the results of a recent survey undertaken by UK employment law firm Peninsula.
It found that nearly half of those surveyed admitted to logging on to social networking sites while at work with a further 24pc visiting a few times per day.
Many SMEs decide to block these sites, but Fergal O’Byrne discourages such knee-jerk reactions.
He advises a policy that encourages responsible use of these sites, adding that if an SME begins calculating money lost through a few minutes web surfing here and there they may as well begin monitoring other costs.
“Do you see the same company that is banning these sites saying that employees are flushing the toilet too much, or leaving the lights on?”
Social networking is like any tool, he says, it can be used for or against your company.
To make a comparison he says many companies were equally suspicious of both email and the internet when they first appeared.
“Look at the vast improvement the internet has made to the ability to do business. It far outweighs the negative impacts in loss of productivity,” says O’Byrne.
Walshe mirrors this view, saying the organisation’s presence on social sites like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube has helped hugely in drawing publicity to the DEAF festival.
DEAF has already been on MySpace for a few years and has over 800 members following every new development as Walshe updates the profile.
Although DEAF only joined Facebook over a month ago it has 260 followers at last count.
“It brings all the right people together and gets them into one place. Using Facebook and MySpace I can invite everyone at once to our events,” she says.
However, the kind of person that would find his or her way to the DEAF festival through somewhere like Facebook, she concedes, is mainly someone that is already interested in keeping up with what’s going on online.
Julian Alubaidy, owner of online wine merchants Bubble Brothers, also finds this to be the case adding that he is “deeply suspicious” of this craze for online networking.
Alubaidy cites that considerable time investment is needed to maintain a profile on one or more of these.
“It is not something that makes your job easier, it’s something that you have to find room for, either woven into or on the periphery of what you’re doing, so that makes for a busier day,” he says.
“There’s a limit to the amount of time you can physically spend on all these online tools without ignoring the actual business at hand.”
Walshe finds that if an organisation is willing to invest time in connecting with people on these sites then the payback is a loyal following.
“People spend a lot of time on Facebook so they would be checking us out. Members tend to read their newsfeeds and find out who’s updated and who’s doing what.”
She is sceptical about corporate presence on the site and doesn’t see how blatant advertising is going to be accepted by the media-savvy users.
“I don’t know how people on Facebook would react if a business actually went onto it because it is quite a free and independent thing. I would think users don’t want corporate bodies going on to these sites.”
As a Net Visionary Award nominee, entrepreneur and internet marketer, Eamonn Grant, owner of online florist Flowers Made Easy, knows from first-hand experience that there is money to be made on places like Bebo and Facebook.
“The reality is that every business has something to gain from Facebook.
“It will just take the bigger companies more time to structure their Facebook account in a way that their marketing department will like.”
Grant says that Flowers Made Easy survives on growing its business through word-of-mouth referrals, and that social networking is an ideal place to do this.
In the past few weeks brides pleased with their wedding bouquets have put up pictures of their big day complete with his bouquets, and have added the florist as a Facebook friend.
This is a gesture that Grant is confident will spread the brand further. As director of an arts festival spreading the brand is the biggest part of Walshe’s job but Facebook needed to just be about reaching out to the punter directly.
She has noticed the slow but steady trickle of PR firms, press and industry types onto social networking sites, and has used this as an opportunity to get to know people in the same line of business that she otherwise might never have met.
Walshe recalls a recent arts event where someone she had never met recognised her from Facebook.
Having made a new business contact he didn’t exchange cards or give her his number. Walshe wasn’t offended and thinks this is becoming more and more commonplace.
His parting words?
“I’ll see you on Facebook.”
Social networking helps SMEs to blossom
If you have a look around Dublin City you’ll notice that many of the large florists are now gone because of rising rents, observes Eamonn Grant, owner of online florist Flowers Made Easy.
When a traditional business model didn’t cut it any more, Grant decided to say it with flowers through social networking sites like Facebook and Bebo.
After returning from Australia last year to take over the family business he launched a website along with a blog and then began investigating a social networking presence to get the company brand known.
Grant admits that at first he created a profile for his company on these sites “just to see what would happen” but ended up drumming up significant business.
A week before Valentine’s Day, Flowers Made Easy became Bebo’s first Irish online florist.
This move elicited a positive response resulting in many orders before and on the day, in addition to referrals from customers.
Grant has also used the site to advertise job vacancies, showcase the florist’s online album and gain referrals to create a Facebook group providing discounts and special offers.
“I don’t think that I’m going to be a millionaire overnight from Facebook,” he says.
“But if you can get an idea and launch it through Facebook you have a potential marketplace there of over 42 million people — more tech savvy-customers than there is in all of China!”
By Marie Boran