Business networking has been transformed

Annabel Denham
Follow Annabel
NETWORKING has always played an important role in career and business progression, but it has seen a significant transformation in recent years. The most notable change has come in the way professionals network: from a face-to-face business card exchange to making hundreds of connections on, for example, LinkedIn. Executives at global companies no longer need to be in the same room to hold meetings; telepresence and group video systems mean they can hold place across different regions, but without the travel costs.

The creation of online social and professional networks also means small businesses can operate globally. Sales teams have adapted accordingly, with social media forming a sizeable portion of marketing strategies. Everyone from chief executives to the White House (which encourages citizens to “tell us what you think” on its Twitter feed) are using social media for marketing or visibility purposes. Technology is enabling people to be more intimate with one another – and this gives companies a huge opportunity.

LinkedIn is possibly the best example of the enormous impact social networks have made. With more than 187m members (with two more joining every second) in over 200 countries, the website has revolutionised the recruitment marketplace.

According to Richard George at LinkedIn, “professionals join the network to establish their professional identity, connect with their professional network, and access better insights and opportunities to be better at what they do”. But LinkedIn is not exclusively for the benefit of employees – it is transforming the way that companies approach the recruitment process. More than 13,000 companies worldwide use LinkedIn’s recruiting service, with most favouring its flagship service Recruiter to the less cost-effective recruitment agency option. It also enables companies to tap into passive talent – only 20 per cent of LinkedIn’s members are job-hunting.

But as there are more than 2m company pages, companies have to compete to present the best products and services to their professional audience. Another challenge is effectively presenting their culture, vision, and job opportunities to appeal to professionals who may want to work there.

In the first five years of social media’s existence, “many companies had a policy of rejecting and ringfencing it by saying it was purely social”, says Julia Hobsbawm, founder of Editorial Intelligence. But in the past year, this approach has turned on its head. Facebook and Twitter have progressed beyond social media sites to become key channels for communication. Using Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other social media platforms is a useful selling tactic, giving businesses the visibility that used to cost millions through mass-media advertising.

The development of mobile devices means that the internet in general and social media in particular are being increasingly used by firms for marketing and customer engagement. It has given a voice to consumers, seeking to share their experiences, with a number of companies performing all customer feedback through Twitter. The social media site has more than 500m registered users, and handles 1.6bn search queries each day. But everyone has access to this information, thus forcing companies to continually adapt and innovate to stay ahead of their competitors.

Businesses are embracing the social media revolution in their workplaces – with many having internal platforms for internal cooperation and learning. Business-to-business and business-to-consumer transactions are key for brand awareness, enhancing how companies transact internally and with their consumers. A recent HubSpot article cited how Cisco created a SuperFan Spotlight on its Facebook page, which rewards members of the online Cisco community who share news and information about the company. By rewarding brand advocacy from consumers, companies are working to secure repeat business, as well as build up a good online reputation.

Businesses are also seeking ways to network within themselves and with their client base. The market for immersible video telepresence systems continues to gain traction. Indeed, a recent Gartner report found that it’s expected to grow at 25.7 per cent per year through 2013, from a base of approximately $547m (£337m) in 2010. Telepresence technology is used to conduct senior leadership meetings – aimed at travel reduction and rapid decision-making.

But there are those who are sceptical of purely technology-led connections. Indeed, Hobsbawm has said that “the problem is that there are too many people doing it and good networking happens with the few”. Certainly, firms have yet to find a way to directly sell through online networks. But they are no doubt seeking to replicate the success of Google AdWord through social media.