But many businesses are still trying to figure out whether they have any real practical use in the office.
Are they something with limited business appeal, helpful perhaps only for people in certain jobs? Or will they transform the way companies do business, the way that the Internet and e-mail did in the mid-1990s?
These are some of the questions insurance executives and IT professionals have been asking themselves as they witness the rise of this new communication tool.
In my last column, I wrote about some of the potential risks associated with the use of social media such as Facebook and MySpace. And one of those risks was the risk of ignoring the thing entirely.
I recently spoke with Jim Haun, head of IT at Assurex Global who says social media was a big topic of discussion at the firm's recent IT conference for its executives.
"It's an issue that keeps coming back for more and more of our partners," he says. Assurex Global is currently taking a close look at the social media phenomenon and is exploring how best to put it to use. But Haun stressed the need for any efforts in social networking to carefully mirror the firms' already developed brand image or personality.
Assurex Global's interest in social media comes at a time when some are saying we are at a critical juncture not all that different from the early- to mid-1990s when businesses first began using the Internet and e-mail. In those days, everyone relied on phones and faxes.
As a wire service reporter in the early 1990s, I clipped articles out of newspapers for future reference. When out at press conferences, I first scoped out hotel lobbies to locate the pay phones so that I could sprint out the door and call in my story before the competition.
Today, pay phones have gone the way of the dinosaur and I do research on the Internet.
No one wants be a Luddite, left behind as competitors find better ways to reach customers.
Rick Morgan, who has advised agents and insurance companies on technology strategies for some 20 years, tells me that a number of agents have begun using FaceBook and Twitter with great success. One California agent, he says, went from selling two policies a month to selling two a week as a result of his Facebook page.
Morgan, who is the chairman of the IIABA ACT Web 2.0 Workgroup and also heads up his own consulting firm, describes social media as a critical way of reaching people in an age when so many of us are using spam filters, DVRs and do-not-call lists to avoid advertisements and push marketing efforts.
To reach people, you have to be where they are and there are some 250 million active users on Facebook and 130 million active users on MySpace. The key is that it's not so much about selling as it is about listening.
Those voicing skepticism or concerns about security are just repeating many of the same objections from the mid-1990s, Morgan says.
While it's good to be aware of the potential risks, skeptics might want to beware of dismissing the technology too cavalierly--or run the risk of sounding a bit like Ken Olsen, the former chairman and founder of Digital Equipment, who supposedly said in 1977: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
PATRICIA VOWINKEL, has worked for national media outlets for more than 20 years.
October 15, 2009
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