How to use social networks for business gain

Summary:Applications such as Facebook are seen as a distraction by some employers but, if managed in the right way, the technology can actually improve business collaboration

Case study: j4b — social networking for small businesses

One company that is taking advantage of social networking already is j4b, a UK web-based service that provides small businesses across Europe with information about grants and other funding opportunities.

"Essentially we provide a database that people can search for information on all kinds of grants, soft loans and venture capital," explained Peter Crosby, business development director with j4b. "The information is updated daily, and otherwise those companies would have to search through dozens of websites and directories manually to try and find this information."

However, earlier this year, j4b saw an opportunity to use social networking to extend their business and provide customers with more services. The information provided through the website was fairly one-dimensional, said Crosby, and relied on j4b knowing what their clients wanted to hear about.

Before launching a service, j4b did some detailed market research which showed that the majority of clients were interested in talking to other businesses in similar situations to their own. "People were massively interested in virtual communities," said Crosby. "There is no doubt they wanted to lead the agenda, and not simply be fed news by us."

After researching a number of options, j4b opted to use a public social-networking platform as a cheaper and faster alternative to building their own service. "We invited users to join a social network run on Viadeo, and 700 of them joined within two days — and it was a case of a 60-second sign-up process," said Crosby. "Because grant applications are quite complex and many of our customers are small businesses, they were incredibly keen to have a forum where they could share information and advice between themselves."

Using the social network helps customers but also provides j4b with valuable insights into their customers' needs, Crosby added. For example, several clients on the networking platform were discussing challenges around applying for funding for agricultural projects in Northern Ireland, an area that the site previously didn't cover. "That kind of thing gives us a better idea of what they want to talk about," said Crosby.

Topics: Tech Industry

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