Online Business Networking

In his most recent Thursday Night Insight post, Matthew Harrison ponders how advancements in technology have impacted on – and continue to affect – the way we live our lives and conduct our business.

My colleagues may laugh, but I’ve always considered myself relatively in-touch with the latest technological developments.  I’ve never been the sort of person to buy Stuff Magazine, prance around the living room with a Nintendo Wii or stay up all night in my anorak cyber-scuffling with a student from Malaysia, but nor am I a technophobe.  In fact I like to think that I use technology as and when it enhances my life, but within the realms of social acceptability.

Indeed, deep within the bowels of the B2B International website, you may find that I ‘pioneered’ our online focus groups.  I was also the first person in our organization to own a Blackberry, much to the derision of my colleagues, many of whom are now putting their marriages at risk by becoming full-time Crackberry addicts themselves.  I must admit to a complete inability to attach a projector to a lap-top and make it work first-time, but from what I’ve observed this is true of most market researchers.

A technology we all now regard as a basic tool of the workplace and our social lives is, of course, email.  How would we market researchers cope if we still had to print and bind reports, and courier them through to our clients?  How would we or our clients feel if every update had to be by phone or face-to-face, with fieldwork updates out-of-date as soon as they were produced and questionnaires faxed back and forth until they were finalized?  There is no doubt that email has improved not only the speed and ease of communication, but also – as a general rule – the quality of communication.

As with my professional life, my social life and personal interactions used to rely heavily on email communications.  Weekends away, news on the latest engagements and pregnancies, photographs of friends on exotic holidays – every communication of any substance was performed through email, with short-term arrangements and snippets of information communicated through cell-phone.

But some time around last Spring, something strange started to happen.  I was living in China at the time, and I noticed the steady stream of social emails start to diminish.  This left me perplexed and a little worried.  Had someone decided to firewall the endless news of weddings, births and christenings on the grounds that it was too tedious for human consumption?  Had I offended somebody?  Had everyone forgotten about me?  As the weeks passed and the stream of emails became a trickle, I genuinely started to fear that the word had got out – that it was Matthew Harrison who spoiled that wedding in 2003 by insisting the DJ play The Locomotion.

But one night, as I lay awake plagued with self-doubt, it struck me.  Was it a mistake to ignore all of the invitations?  Was I wrong to dismiss this phenomenon as a silly fad indulged in by teenagers in low-slung trousers and nosey twentysomethings who should know better?

“THAT’S IT!” I yelled, leaping out of my depressed slumber and cart-wheeling across the bedroom.

“IT’S FACEBOOK!!  I knew I wasn’t a social pariah!  I knew Dave and Liz wouldn’t forget to send me the pictures from their long weekend in Budapest!  Where’s my laptop?”

That very night I joined the masses and became a Facebook User.

Fourteen months later, I have a grand total of 57 friends, ranging from my nearest and dearest through to childhood friends that I haven’t laid eyes on for two decades.  There is something about the public dissemination of ‘personal’ information that I feel uncomfortable with, and something not quite right about a 31-year old having what is effectively a homepage.  But the truth is that this is how my peer-group (even my parents) – my ‘audience’ – is now communicating, and that, therefore, is how I have to communicate.  To reject this means of communication would be social suicide.

In the market research industry and more generally across business markets, the latest consumer technologies tend to be watched with a mixture of interest and wariness, before they become adapted for business use and then accepted by the wider business community.  Just as B2B International looked at online discussion forums being used mainly by teenagers and turned them into a market research technique, so Facebook and similar social networking tools are now evolving into business applications.  I now work at B2B International in the USA and yesterday subscribed to LinkedIn, the business networking tool allowing businesspeople to make contact, recommend and communicate with each other.  Four clients within a month had asked me for my LinkedIn details, and I wasn’t going to risk my communication from clients and potential clients drying up.

How far this type of application will replace existing means of communication for businesses, or even evolve into a technique that can be used for market research purposes, is unclear.  However, doing business depends on communicating with those whose needs we can profitably fulfil, and those who shut out messages that are being transmitted through new and innovative means risk more than a few sleepless nights.

Matthew Harrison is a Director of B2B International, based in New York.  He can be contacted at, on +1 914-761-1909, or on LinkedIn.

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