What can an externally-facing social network do for a business?


The Haystack system from Cerado is a social network tool for businesses with a twist. The audience for the network is people outside the company who want to talk about something, and would like to find the right person within the business to approach. Cerado have published a short ebook explaining the uses of this, from sales to m&a, but for me the key insight is that there’s a big difference between using an anonymous email address or phone number as the initial way of contacting a business, and having a named person to talk to.

People don’t have relationships with organizations, they have relationships with individuals. Organizations don’t have any memory, ability to trade favors, or pictures of grandchildren to swap. In my professional life, I’m able to get information and assistance from large companies through the individuals I know who work at them. It’s rare that I’m able to get help through the public forums or mailing lists because the questions I’m stuck on tend to be complex and tricky. Since developer support is bombarded with questions from inexperienced developers, you have to go through the dance of proving that the machine is plugged in to the wall socket and caps lock is off before they’ll dig into your issue. With individuals, I have the credibility for them to assume I’ve done the obvious stuff, and cut to the chase of looking at the issue I’m presenting. They remember the context of the larger system I’m working in, so I don’t have to explain that every time. And since I’ve reciprocated and helped them in the past with issues related to my company, they’re willing to spend some time assisting me.

Haystack is about making it easier to build these sort of relationships with individuals inside companies, for sales contacts, business partnerships and anything else that requires communication with an organization. They publish profiles of employees, with photos, tags indicating their areas of expertise and contact details. From a customer perspective, I like this a lot more than the usual bland contact page, it adds a human face to the organization and lowers the barrier for me to contact them. I’d have more confidence I’d reach someone who’d be able and willing to answer my questions, rather than a random intern I’d have to persuade to escalate me. I could see this being useful if I wanted to buy from a company, get a job there, sell something to them, ask a technical question or talk about a business partnership.

It does require a change in the way most organizations operate though. The usual practice is that there’s designated people who are gatekeepers to the outside world, both to control the flow of information to make sure nothing outside of policy is leaked, and to protect employees from being distracted from their internal work. The gatekeepers also derive a lot of power and prestige from their control of the communication channels, so they tend to have a vested interest in keeping them limited. I think that organizations would be better off relaxing the current systems, but the spectre of lawsuits and information leakage makes it a tough sell in any group where avoiding blame is the top priority.

Cerado also run a great blog, another great way to add a human face to a company, and one that runs into the same worries.

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