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What’s the point of social networking?

Yes, it’s fun. But does it bring in more business?

Just recently, I was explaining Twitter over coffee to a friend of mine. She’s – how shall I put this tactfully? – slightly technically challenged.

Have you ever wondered why the French eat horse meat? To those who don’t lick their lips at the thought of a Dobbin Burger, it’s inconceivable. Yet to the average Frenchman, it’s just another choice on the menu. And when they try to explain to you why it’s no big deal, they’re puzzled that you don’t understand.

So it was with my friend.

I explained Twitter, and as I talked, I realised it sounded more and more implausible. (Mentally, I saw the meat aisle of a French supermarket.)

She nodded sagely, but said very little. And when I’d finished, she looked at me earnestly and made a short but damning pronouncement.

“I see,” she said slowly and deliberately. “So this replaces friends, does it?”

Touché.

A time and a place

First things first. I think social networking is great: you can make new friends, hook up with old ones, and have a grand old time online.

More than 20 years ago, I remember being abroad for the summer. It was pre-Internet, pre-mobile phones, and phoning home cost a fortune.

So for three months, I sent just one postcard to my parents. And I virtually lost touch with my friends. That’s just how it was.

Now, with the information revolution, we’re MySpacing and Facebooking and Tweeting here, there and everywhere. So you’re always in touch.

In fact, there’s never been a better time to have a personal life.

But what about business?

Me too

Earlier this year, I was chatting at a networking event with a digital marketing director for a big (think very big) multinational. The conversation turned to social media, and there was no stopping him. He was on a roll.

It was so important, he told me, that they were where their customers were – and that was Twitter. Who would have thought it? Getting the message across in 140-character bursts was the way of the future.

Twitter is so zeitgeisty that to question it is akin to heresy. But I can’t help thinking, in the famous words of Walter Mondale in 1984, where’s the beef?

What’s in it for large organisations? Social media is a profound shift in how we communicate, but is it the key to corporate heaven? I’m not so sure.

Companies spend millions honing their message, crafting their image and managing their brand every year.

But to my mind, getting in on the social-networking act is a bit like watching parents getting on down to their kids’ music: too embarrassing for words.

Say hello, wave goodbye

We’re all focused on the numbers these days, so he’s a little KPI to give corporate Tweeters food for thought: according to research company Nielsen, 60% of US adults don’t return the following month to Twitter feeds they’ve signed up to.

Big business just has to face it: if you’re not as young and cute as Ashton Kutcher, or as erudite and witty as Stephen Fry, the chances are your Twitter feed will languish in virtual oblivion.

So why not be different by going back to basics? Send hand-written birthday cards to clients. Pick up the phone and find out your customers are doing. Attend networking events and meet real people. Train your staff to smile even when they’re on the phone (yes, it makes a difference).

Out of the mouths…

Meanwhile, as my friend skimmed the froth off her cappuccino, I explained corporate tweeting. And the more I talked, the more her face clouded over with incomprehension.

“The thing I don’t get, ” she said, waggling her spoon to emphasise her point, “is what the company people, the ones who do this Twitter thing, the…” she paused to find the right word, “the Twits, what they get out of it?”

Touché again. With chocolate on top.

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