Everyone is talking about social media. Is it worth the time and effort for a business to use it? Where is the ROI? On which sites should I spend my time? Are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and increasingly, Google+ my best options?
We all know that social networking sites come and go. Some last for a stint then wither away (MySpace and Friendster anyone?) and others seem to be in it for the long haul. While each platform handles social networking in a slightly different way, they all accomplish pretty much the same thing. When it comes right down to it, each one allows you to interact with different people and companies and catch up on the latest news. But if you aren't interested in the 'different' aspect and want something a little more targeted, there are plenty of social networking options from which to choose.
Industry-specific social networking sites are springing up on the Internet and they are gaining traction. Using LinkedIn for business networking is a great strategy, but you do have to wade through a lot of different updates and feeds to find things specific to your industry or navigate to your groups' pages to see if anything new has popped up. Industry-specific social networking sites allow you to interact with professionals from your industry exclusively and are focused on news and events that affect your business directly.
Because of this, these sites may be less distracting than regular social networking sites. You don't have to hunt through pictures of your niece's birthday party or your mom's recipes in order to find that article your coworker suggested. For those who aren't keen on using social networking yet, this could be a great opportunity to get your feet wet, since you'll be able to participate in a "safer" environment where you are knowledgeable and comfortable.
Don James is a CPA with Kiplinger & Company in Strongsville, OH and is an active participant on the accounting networking site iShade.com. Don checks in 4 - 5 times a week to see what is happening throughout the accounting industry. "The biggest benefit of industry-specific networking is that it helps me keep an ear to the ground with the latest accounting news and trends," says Don.
The benefits of these sites originally drew social media-savvy professionals, but now they are continuing to expand because of their targeted approach and low barriers to entry. These sites have great potential as long as people continue to join and participate. "I began using ResearchGate in early 2008 and continue to use it on a daily basis," says Wilco Ligterink, a researcher at the Laboratory of Plant Physiology at Wageningen University in The Netherlands. ResearchGate connects scientists in order to foster better research through collaboration. "It combines social networking with data sharing and has various collaborative applications, allowing me to interact with other researchers around the world," says Wilco, "it's the perfect network for scientists."
How many of these industry-specific sites are currently up and running? There are plenty out there, but here are a few that seem to be particularly active and have a relatively large number of members:
- iShade.com (http://www.ishade.com/): iShade is a social networking site dedicated to the accounting industry, targeted solely to accountants and the people who serve them. In some ways, it's similar to LinkedIn, in that you create both individual and firm profiles, add regular updates, join groups and connect with other site participants. Additionally, iShade offers free access to industry experts during the highly popular Ask The Expert sessions. During specified times, you can log in and post questions to top thought leaders and experts in the accounting profession.
- linkedFA.com (http://www.linkedfa.com/): This site is a network for financial and insurance professionals and investors. When it comes to social networking, you're hard pressed to find another industry that has as many restrictions. This site can brag that its format is completely compliant to rules and regulations placed by FINRA and the SEC. It's quite the find, since financial planners can't take advantage of many of the features of the more traditional social media sites.
- Architizer.com (http://www.architizer.com/en_us/): If architecture is your thing, check out Architizer. Architizer is social network created for architects to interact, show their work and find clients. It is an open community created by architects for architects, and users can search for what they need in a variety of ways. There's a section for architecture students and a lot of really interesting information to be found. I even learned what the new Apple campus will look like while perusing the site. Pretty cool, indeed.
- GLOZAL.com (http://glozal.com/): Those in real estate can look to GLOZAL for their industry networking. GLOZAL is a Social Real Estate Network where members can network, post listings, upload videos & photos, blog, video chat and tweet. It looks like quite an active community and would be my go-to place if I were looking to invest in real estate anywhere in the world. I only wish I could afford that lovely home in Costa Rica.
- Biznik.com (http://biznik.com/): This site is dedicated to small business owners. Here, users can interact with other small business owners to get ideas and advice, and create referral networks. It's built on the idea that entrepreneurs often feel isolated and alone, so this is a place where they can collaborate, learn and meet other like-minded professionals. Biznik also takes the idea of social networking one step further and provides opportunities for members to meet face-to-face in a variety of locations around the country. They have a pretty serious code of conduct and distance themselves from LinkedIn by saying they are not a place for people to find their next job.
- TankChat.com (https://www.tankchat.com/): This is an online community whose initial purpose was to assist and support those in the oil and chemicals business and has since grown to encompass all in the area of logistics. This private community is a place where members can set up personal and company profiles, search for jobs, see the latest news, create private networking groups and more. It's a free site, but you do have to join to interact with other members.
- Sermo.com (http://www.sermo.com/): Sermo is a place where physicians can network on everything from patient care to practice management. Touting itself as the largest online physician community in the US, Sermo spans 68 specialties and all 50 states. Practicing US physicians can collaborate on difficult cases and exchange observations about drugs, devices and clinical issues, and find potentially life-saving insights that have yet to be announced by conventional media sources.
- Lawyrs.net (http://www.lawyrs.net/) Lawyrs (yes, that is the correct spelling) is, you guessed it, social media for lawyers. This site allows lawyers to create professional profiles for themselves and their firms, get legal news updates and create referral networks internationally. Much like LinkedIn, they also have groups that members can join to further refine their experience and the information they receive.
- ResearchGate.net (http://www.researchgate.net/): ResearchGate was built for scientists by scientists with the idea that science can do more when it's driven by collaboration. Translated into lay terms: it's easier to collaborate on projects and get advice and ideas on one single platform vs. exchanging multiple emails with multiple people. Membership is free and once a part of the community, you can connect to other members, post questions for discussion, stay on top of the latest news and even search for your next big job. The site design is one of the best I saw and you can login with your Facebook information too.
- BuilderLink.com (http://www.yourbuilderlink.com/): BuilderLink is a growing online community of builders, lumberyards, product manufacturers and other industry members. This is where they network, collaborate, estimate, conduct research and make their companies stronger and better equipped for today's market. Members can access an online resource library, attend Webinars, find the hottest web-based tools and even get real-time pricing on lumber and materials. In an industry that's been so hard-hit by the economic downturn, this seems like a no-brainer.
"Social networking is about collegiality, information gathering, providing information to large groups, sharing opinions and venting," says Sermo user Dr. Maureen Welihan of Elite GYN Care of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, FL. "All of these are critical to a balanced existence in the field of medicine. What better platform to do it in than industry specific sites like Sermo? The ability to share thoughts and concerns about work, family and life with those that are most likely to understand is incredibly helpful."
I don't have a crystal ball, but I am curious to see if new sites keep popping up and if their membership remains engaged. It's hard to stay on top of all the social networking options out there today, and I wonder if professionals will start migrating to these sites instead of more generalized ones like LinkedIn and Twitter. Only time will tell, but I look forward to seeing happens next.
Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk is president and founder of bbr marketing, a firm that specializes in marketing strategy and tactical implementation for professional services firms. She has nearly 20 years of marketing experience working with a diverse range of industries and people. Her creative thinking and distinctive approach allows her to bring unique ideas to her clients that differentiate them from their competition and give them the tools they need to reach their audiences. Learn more at www.bbrmarketing.com.