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Should Your Business be on the Web?

Ludicrous question, right?

But you youngsters gather round, because us old 'uns with a few gray hairs recall that precise question being subject of hot debate about a dozen years ago, when there actually was a "browser war" and we all wondered if Alta Vista would ever be dethroned as the King of Search Engines.

The argument against investing heavily in a Web presence was actually compelling. There wasn't much you could do with a business site other than give your address and take orders over email. Online commerce? Few trusted the idea of sending their credit card number out into the ether, probably for good reason. How will people find our site? we wondered. Isn't the Web development money we would spend better used on magazine advertising?

Today, of course -- well, we don't have to recap what happened. But I am reminded of those dark days in the mid-1990s, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, as the subject of business and social networking pops up, which is about every 30 seconds on one blog or another. Should we have a marketing presence on MySpace? Should we develop a Facebook app? How will people find our YouTube video?

Charlene Li, a principal analyst at Forrester, has just provided several compelling reasons on Harvard Business for companies to jump into social networking today rather than wait for the digital dust to settle. Her take is that even in the early stages of social networking, where few business tools exist, good work is already being done and valuable lessons learned by aggressive forerunners.

"Victoria's Secret has badges that its enthusiasts can download on MySpace (to) put on their profiles for their friends to see. Ernst & Young (yes, an accounting firm!) answers questions from college students on Facebook â€" people they are trying hard to recruit." After all business is social, right?

Also take a look at some comments on her post from business folk.

  • Getting to Know You. A software company sponsors Facebook Friday to encourage employees and friends scattered across the globe to get together virtually and learn about each other. Social networking sites, says employee Kelly, "provide a valuable way to connect to colleagues, business associates, customers and friends. They help us form relationships despite globally distributed enterprises. They can make the work environment more friendly. They also help us keep tabs on the priorities and world-view of our future customers."
  • Nothing Ventured. A venture capitalist writes that he gets valuable leads on potential portfolio companies as well as increasing his own visibility. "I meet 2 people a week that I have been introduced to, or found ... through facebook or a blogging community," the VC testifies.
  • Whatever Happened to Harry? Diligent use of networking sites is a great way to keep track of past clients and contacts, writes Steven. "At the very least these sites allow you to track business contacts who have left your client company to go elsewhere," he says.
What does your network tell you? Is it too early for companies to explore the SN space? Will early experimenters be rewarded?
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