Social Networking Vendors Aim for the Enterprise

By Matthew Hicks  |  Print this article Print


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Having started beta tests and raised funding, a string of vendors are ready to launch new offerings in the new year that promise to expand users' business connections.

A new breed of social networking companies is hoping to make 2004 the year of making connections within the enterprise.

Taking a model first made popular for dating with the likes of Friendster Inc., the group of vendors is planning to move from beta versions of business-focused social networking into full products tailored to enterprise customers. Their goal is to help business professionals and enterprise sales groups uncover their network of relationships and use it to gain referrals and introductions that are more successful than the traditional cold call.

Spoke Software Inc., Visible Path Corp. and ZeroDegrees Inc. are focused squarely on the enterprise by offering private social networks, integration with standard applications such as Microsoft Outlook and IBM Lotus Notes as well as customer relationship management (CRM) systems and specific enterprise applications designed for generating sales and new business. Others, such as LinkedIn Ltd., are more broadly targeting business users with general Web-based networks.

In 2003, the overall field of social networking began to blossom. Venture capitalists began to pour money into companies such as Spoke and LinkedIn, leading some experts to predict a new Internet boom. And new companies and services sprouted up to take advantage of the interest, especially among consumers looking to find new friends or a date. The question for new year is whether the growth in business-oriented social networking software will catch on with enterprises.

Spoke, of Palo Alto, Calif., plans to introduce its third enterprise application, Spoke Marketing, in the first quarter of 2004. Like its other two apps, Spoke Leads and Spoke Accounts, it will sit on top of the general Spoke network and provide specialized tools, in this case for planning and deploying a marketing campaign with the use of connections, said Chris Tolles, vice president of marketing at Spoke.

Spoke also plans to launch a hosted version of its software in January, Tolles said. Spoke's software currently is deployed by an enterprise and mines relationship information from e-mails and enterprise systems to build what Spoke calls an "implicit" network of connections, then weighs the strength of a user's relationships.

Spoke is positioning itself as more than just software to expose and map a user's relationships to make new business connections but also as a research tool for discovering more about a person in preparation for a meeting or sales plan. Spoke gathers information from the Web and e-mails to create a resume about a contact.

"Friendster was very much about access," Tolles explained. "We think there's a lot to be gained from insight and influence."

What do vendors plan for 2004?

Also in early 2004, New York-based Visible Path plans to formally launch Visible Path for SFA. Currently in use with early adopters, the software is offered as a service that links into sales force automation software to let users visualize relationships, request introductions and monitor connections to current sales accounts or targeted leads. It currently integrates into Salesforce.com Inc. with integration into other SFA systems planned for next year, officials said.

Internet CRM vendor Salesforce.com is adopting a new channel strategy. To read the full story, click here.

While starting with sales force automation software, Visible Path plans to link into a full swath of enterprise applications with the belief that users want social-networking capabilities to be part of existing applications, not a discrete application or Web site, said CEO Antony Brydon.

"We don't believe public networks have a lot of value," he said. "We believe people are not aligned on the same interests (there)."

What do enterprise customers want from social networking applications? Click here to read their opinions and the experience of early adopters.

While Spoke and Visible Path are focusing on selling directly to enterprises, ZeroDegrees is taking a different tact. While the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company also is building its social network for enterprise use, it is targeting its adoption to individual users rather than enterprise accounts, said Jas Dhillon, ZeroDegrees president and CEO.

"You can't implement software and get an instant social network," Dhillon said. "To us, the key thing is building confidence and trust with the individual business user."

ZeroDegrees in early December launched the final beta of its social networking technology and plans a production release in February, Dhillon said. An option for creating a behind-the-firewall group within the general network also is set for the release.

As it builds out the network, ZeroDegrees wants to offer add-on applications. The first, a sales intelligence dashboard that will help users find qualified leads and warm referrals, is slated for a release by the end of 2004, Dhillon said.

Like ZeroDegrees, LinkedIn also has focused on individual business users for its social network. It most closely follows the model of consumer sites. All members explicitly join the network and fill out their own profiles, rather than having information extracted from e-mails or enterprise applications. In those profiles, users specify the types of requests it will accept—for hiring, business development, access to experts or sales, said Konstantin Guericke, vice president of marketing.

"The network is only good if you can actually reach the people," he said, noting the importance of the profiles. "If there's only information on people and titles, it's kind of like a leads database without contact information."

Mountain View, Calif.-based LinkedIn, which began a beta network in May, plans a full launch in the second quarter of 2004. At that time, it also expects to offer a management feature for enterprises with a large number of individual users where participation and privacy can be more centrally managed, Guericke said.

Matthew Hicks As an online reporter for eWEEK.com, Matt Hicks covers the fast-changing developments in Internet technologies. His coverage includes the growing field of Web conferencing software and services. With eight years as a business and technology journalist, Matt has gained insight into the market strategies of IT vendors as well as the needs of enterprise IT managers. He joined Ziff Davis in 1999 as a staff writer for the former Strategies section of eWEEK, where he wrote in-depth features about corporate strategies for e-business and enterprise software. In 2002, he moved to the News department at the magazine as a senior writer specializing in coverage of database software and enterprise networking. Later that year Matt started a yearlong fellowship in Washington, DC, after being awarded an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship for Journalist. As a fellow, he spent nine months working on policy issues, including technology policy, in for a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He rejoined Ziff Davis in August 2003 as a reporter dedicated to online coverage for eWEEK.com. Along with Web conferencing, he follows search engines, Web browsers, speech technology and the Internet domain-naming system.

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