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Social Networking for Business: Risk or ROI?

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Based in Melbourne, AVG (AU/NZ) distributes the AVG range of Anti-Virus and Internet Security products in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. This article discusses the impact of using social networking as a business communications tool.  

LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and social networking sites in general are argued by some to have tangible business benefits, but are these communication channels nothing more than a business risk gateway or do they have the potential to deliver a real and positive impact upon total Return on Investment (ROI)?

Some Facts about Social Networking

  • Leading research and advisory company Gartner predicts social networking will overtake email by 2014
  • A Manpower survey in January 2010 indicated that only 20% of companies worldwide have a social media policy
  • In the first six months of 2010 the number of LinkedIn members grew by 40% to 70 million, Twitter grew to 190 million users and around 250 million people log into Facebook every day
  • 40 per cent of businesses globally have successfully used social media for business development, according to a new survey by Regus

Industry opinion suggests that while businesses have adopted Facebook (and perhaps even more prevalently, LinkedIn and Twitter) as a networking tool, the privacy improvements that the social networking giant brought to bear were not commensurate to the risks that now exist at the corporate networked level.  

Put simply, if one uses social networks inside a business network then a new privacy policy alone doesn't cut it. Without directly addressing the issues of identity theft, cyber crime and web-driven targeted espionage attacks, one would be leaving the door wide open.  

Social networking sites in the meantime, appear to be focused on how to make sites more engaging, easier to use and more 'sticky' to hold users' attention. A central part of this is getting users to post more personal content and link in with more personally connected information.  

All of which builds up profile and identity. Take this example to the business environment and identity becomes intellectual property.  

Sending out information detailing which companies one is meeting with, puts the attention on their business partners and prospects to their competitors. Telling the world about one’s company's new product innovations prior to their official launch could weaken their impact.  

The danger of an unguarded approach to social networking is not just about risks to physical property on a personal or corporate level; identity theft is also a serious concern.  

A New Term to Learn – Gateway Data   

So how exactly could a cyber criminal use information from a Facebook or LinkedIn profile to get access to a business or personal bank account for instance?  

Herbert ‘Hugh’ Thompson, professor in the Computer Science department at Columbia University in New York has coined the term ‘gateway data’ to refer to the confidential information harvested from social networking sites.

The gateway data identified by Thompson can be used in a variety of ways. For example, discovering someone's mother's maiden name from Facebook could in turn be used to answer a password prompt question on an email account. Even if that account is a personal account, the user will have been compromised and the hacker is one step closer to all the business information that they want.  

Once a criminal has gained access to the user's email there is a good chance there will be details inside, which will enable them to break into a bank account for example.  

Other uses for gateway data include using a partial piece of information, such as the first five digits of a company credit card to trick the user into revealing the full card number.   

Basically a hacker will be looking to use lots of fragments of data to reveal a larger piece of confidential information.

Experts also advise against installing applications from social networking sites unless the application itself is from a trusted source.  

"Develop a healthy dose of scepticism," Borrett advises. "When you get one of those offers to watch a video and you have to install something to watch it - don't do it. It's not worth it and you should never have to do that. These unknown applications can often contain malicious code such as viruses or worms.”

Borrett also warns about the popularity of shortened URLs on sites such as Twitter.  

“The problem with shortened links is that they usually don’t bear any resemblance to the original URLs, which means that users don’t know what they’re clicking. People click with the intention of going to a specific site, but the link can be easily hacked to send them to a site containing Trojans, spyware, rootkits and other malware instead.”

The ROI Benefits   

Okay, so all of the above makes using social networking for business seem very risky. But just what are the benefits of social networking that deliver ROI?  

Used correctly, social networking typically delivers on four main goals:

  • Increased brand awareness: Interacting with customers, prospects, suppliers and others using social media builds awareness of the company, their staff, their services and their brand.
  • Improved reputation: Using social media to respond effectively to questions and feedback enhances how others think about a company’s business and its place in their community.
  • Relationships with benefits: People are more likely to provide a company with benefits such as their business, testimonials and referrals if it takes the effort to interact with them and build mutually beneficial relationships.
  • Personal development: Networking with others and observing others via social networking is a great way to improve knowledge and experience in a chosen field of expertise.

In summary, social networking can represent a positive force within a business communications environment and contribute positively to a profitable bottom line and a business's total ROI.  

It just needs a layer of management, some user policy controls in place and a degree of strategic planning to ensure that user awareness of the 'company voice' is upheld.

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