End-user involvement with social networking is escalating rapidly. According to studies by research firms IDC and Gartner, now is the time more than ever for businesses to play catch-up. Two recent research reports touch upon the tremendous growth in the enterprise 2.0 sector. An IDC report titled "Social Networking Applications in the U.S Take Hold" reveals a 191 percent growth rate for social networking in 2007. IDC analyst and author of the report, Rachel Happe, details that the biggest -- and least anticipated -- growth in social networking is shown to be within the enterprise. In a Gartner report titled "Social Networks Are Attracting Too Much Traffic For Retailers to Ignore," analyst and author, Hung LeHong, exudes that social networks provide an ideal place for marketing presence and brand exhibition.
While the IDC study emphasizes enterprise growth of social networking; the Gartner study focuses on the spread of social networking into the mainstream. The Gartner report treads upon what retailers can do to reap the benefits of social networking, saying that the segment of use is expanding and should no longer be viewed as just for the youth market. According to Happe's IDC findings, adoption of social networking by users dramatically exceeded her predictions and was used in a different segment than anticipated.
At the start of 2007, Happe projected a 120 percent yearly growth rate with social networks. Amazingly, her forecast was 70 percent short of the actual growth. "I went in thinking that with these functions, that small businesses would be using this more because they are cheap, easy to use, great tools for extending the message and leveraging [brands]. If you are a small company you have to do that," Happe says. "What I found was that use in large companies -- more than 100 employees -- was higher and significantly higher in a number of categories."
The Gartner report generates a list of things retailers should not ignore about social networking. Some of the advice includes knowing the difference between social sites and social platforms and taking advantage of the ability to build brand-oriented applications on top of platforms (such as MySpace and Facebook). Gartner analysts also advise retailers and marketers to be weary of the reconsolidation among social network sites, saying that "consumers are starting to shift to the larger centers of gravity," specifically MySpace and Facebook. Retailers should be weary of the future of the smaller networking sites.
Both studies recognize that social networking's potential for leveraging brands and conversing with consumers is huge for businesses. Happe says that although enterprises are widely adopting networking tools, building and maintaining momentum in community-oriented sites is not always easy and that driving participation is a problem. "Companies need to think about resources, especially community development resources," Happe notes. "You need a lot of attention and events and content that's constantly giving the user something new and valuable." LeHong's Gartner report echoes that thought, advising retailers to create value for community members by allowing user-generated content and providing feedback.
Both reports convey that whether or not businesses join in on the social networking impetus, consumers will continue on without them. "Probably the biggest driver [of growth] is that end-users are using the tools regardless of what they have available from IT department," Happe says. On that same note, LeHong projects, "As social networks expand to embrace ever-wider demographic groups, retailers need to ensure that they have a position on them."
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