Tim Buckley Owen Social media 2: How do you make them work for you?
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By Tim Buckley Owen

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If the wider investment community doesn’t know what to make of social networking companies and their potential, what hope for ordinary businesses? There’s no shortage of reports showing how ineffectually much of business is engaging with them – but no shortage of touted solutions either.

Most United Kingdom employees haven’t been given any clear guidelines on using social networking sites, suggests a recent report from the consulting firm Protiviti. With more than half of workers surveyed saying they used such sites at work, well over a third said there was no corporate policy in place and almost a quarter weren’t aware of one – laying their companies open to risk of security breaches and reputational damage.

Where companies have made efforts to engage with social media, many seem unclear as to its effectiveness because of the absence of any decent metrics. Looking specifically at the retail sector, an Economist Intelligence Unit report found a staggering 84% of respondents rating their effectiveness at measuring social media initiatives as average or poor, with only 4% saying they had advanced metrics in place that could tie social media campaigns directly to retail sales.

More than a third of the EIU respondents are currently exploring ways to incorporate social media insights into their product and merchandising operations, and 15% say they have launched at least one new product based on social media insights. But a report from the retail analyst Verdict adds that, although most retailers have recognised the value of social media, few have realised its potential to benefit their online stores by turning them into entertainment destinations.

It’s the classic dilemma first articulated (attributably) by pioneer department store owner John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half”.  At least in the social media era there are plenty of tools with which to try to answer the question, and consolidation and expansion in this field continue apace.

Google, for example, has recently acquired web analytics specialist PostRank. In an excited announcement, the company’s founders point out that conversations online are an important signal for advertisers, publishers, developers and consumers, but today’s tools “only skim the surface” of what they think is possible.

Meanwhile the Twitter metadata miner DataSift has just announced a $6 million round of venture capital funding to build global sales and support teams to service the surge in demand for its services, and the Register newsletter has reported that another social media analytics firm, Peoplebrowsr, has just crossed the Atlantic to launch in the UK. In an increasingly febrile market of desperate buyers and eager sellers, someone has to sit in the middle sorting the wonder drug from the snake oil.

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