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. Spokes 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 users relationships.
Spoke is positioning itself as more than just software to expose and map a users 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 theres a lot to be gained from insight and influence."
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.
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 dont believe public networks have a lot of value," he said. "We believe people are not aligned on the same interests (there)."