I have waved the white flag, and given up. I’m now a social media convert. Although it may not be the main domain of twenty-somethings, you cannot deny the pervasiveness of social media in our daily personal and professional lives. The million-dollar question is: How can social media be used to grow small or mid-sized businesses? SMBs are often too focused on their daily business operations and don’t have the time to look into social media. I will try to explain the history of social networking as well as the most popular tools and technologies.

AOL chat rooms were the source of the first social networking platform. It was created in late 1980s. It was possible to connect and network with other users from anywhere there was an Internet connection. Chat rooms were a revolutionary social tool that created a new social dynamic. This was for many years the norm in social media. AOL found ways to embed advertising in the application and created a new revenue stream. This was only the beginning of social networking’s explosion.

Even though the dot-com industry collapsed in the late 1990s, the desire to connect with the Internet never waned. In fact, it only got stronger. Web logs and blogs were the next major milestone in social media’s timeline. These tools allowed individuals and/or organisations to post information about almost anything. These posts could be accessed by anyone who has an Internet connection via mini-websites like WordPress and Blogger. The reader also had the opportunity to interact with the author through comments.

The social media timeline wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the birth of shopping, which is one of the biggest outlets that the Internet can facilitate. There were many sites to shop during the dot-com boom. Even after the shakeout, there were still many options. Many sites offered the possibility to share information about products, which was an additional way for people to connect. This led to retailers taking notice.

Amazon.com is the online retailer that embraced this new model and has become the dominant force in online retailing. eBay was another popular online retailer. They also have a “swap meet/auction” business model that allows the community to sell and buy to one another while only taking a small percentage of the final sale price. Another important point in social media evolution was the direct interaction between seller and buyer.

Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson created MySpace in the early years of Y2K. It was one the most popular social networks that became a hot acquisition. Fox’s NewsCorp unit bought the pair for $580 million. Anderson, who rose to fame at the age of 13 as a computer hacker and was later raided by FBI agents, received a good payout. You can also ask him directly. You can add him to each of the “friends” lists of all 240 million MySpace subscribers. But don’t expect a quick answer. Although MySpace was initially created to allow musicians to network, it became a private network for Crimson students seven months later. Facebook was born from this union and quickly gained popularity at other Boston-area colleges like MIT and Boston College. It was quickly adopted by colleges across the country, and soon anyone with an email address ending with in.edu was allowed to join. These boundaries didn’t last long and networks soon emerged for people outside of the educational system. The march continued unabated to the point that “The Social Network”, an Oscar-winning film about Zuckerberg’s creation, was made.

Twitter was created in 2006 by employees of a San Francisco podcasting firm. It was initially a micro-blogging website that shared small messages with other members of the group. Although the original site was web-based, Jack Dorsey led a team that wanted to create a service that used SMS (text messaging) on mobile phones to send information. They decided to reduce the 160 characters limit for these messages to 140 characters in order to make it easier to include the username and colon at each end of the message. It was difficult to get involved in the early days because not all users had unlimited text plans. Once phone plans included unlimited texting, everything changed. Watershed #2 happened. Twitter was used during the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards to create an online community as well as a conversation about the live event.

Social media platforms engaged a new generation like no other ad campaign. Twitter became ubiquitous from that point forward. Apple featured Twitter at their global conference that year. There were TV news stories and print articles. The world was never the same again! Jack was surrounded by a great team, including Dom Sagolla, who wrote about Twitter history as well as the origin of proper messaging techniques. “140 Characters” is a style guide for the short form. It’s likely that it’s available on Amazon.com.

These are all wonderful innovations for the public. But what about the business community. Ironically, something existed that was almost invisible to the general public. In 2002, Reid Hoffman, a visionary, created LinkedIn for business professionals. However, in the wake of the dot-com bust, it was difficult to find funding and felt the need to take on an Internet venture. LinkedIn began on a flatter path than Facebook and MySpace, and maintained a laser-focused focus on being the ultimate site for business professionals seeking networking opportunities. The traditional way to network in the business community was through in-person meetings at trade shows, chambers, and other venues. LinkedIn was seen as an online platform to help expand these interpersonal relationships without limitation of distance and time. The company’s valuation reached over $1 billion in 2009, thanks to increased monetization via job boards and premium memberships.

Foursquare and Pinterest are promising new tools. FourSquare allows users to “check-in” to places such as coffee shops or the top of Mt. Everest, if you have a signal. Pinterest is a relatively new concept and is just starting to gain momentum. Pinboards allow users to save, share, and browse their favorite web content.

Now we have an overview of the major social media players. But why should the SMB be concerned? It’s not difficult to see that both Facebook and Twitter are directly linked to the seller. In any type of retail communication, “Like us” on Facebook and/or “Follow Us on Twitter” are included almost always. And, in the past few years, smart businesses have linked discounts and coupons with those social interactions.

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