The Facebook menace

The Social Network, a movie about Facebook, is due to hit the screens next month.

It's fair to say Hollywood will never make a movie about a telco, unless it involves Bernie Ebbers, although Alexander Graham Bell and Marconi surely offer excellent biopic material. 

It's also fair to say that telcos, like everyone else, are still grappling with social media.

From an operator's perspective, social media - blogs, tweets, social networking, user-generate content - are just one more challenge, like falling phone connections and the mobile data explosion, only not as critical.

But they still have to be addressed. Telcos, more than most companies, are built on Business 1.0  principles: hierarchical, remote from customers and parsimonious with information. Even the newer mobile operators display elements of a culture where the network takes priority over getting in front of the customer. 

In a traditional telco, senior managers used their monopoly over information to help maintain control. Web 2.0 is blowing that up because it flattens the barriers between customers and organizations.

Supposedly 79% of Fortune 500 companies use social media for customer interaction. But what is frustrating for businesses is that for all the boosterism of social media advocates there is very little hard evidence as to its positive benefits.

Not to say that there isn't a big upside. It's just that nobody appears to be tracking it in any meaningful way.

Consultancy Engagement db claims a link between use of social media and financial performance, but doesn't offer any evidence to link the two.

Dell's Twitter account DellOutlet is a good practical example of corporate social media. It's effectively an online sales person, offering customer deals, answering questions on deals and announcing new specials and helping with customer care. Most businesses get that.

Next in degree of difficulty is managing a company's brand on Facebook and among the blogs and tweets. It maybe just a PR/issues management exercise but requires a change in company behavior. If your brand is getting beaten up online you need to know about it and respond to it at speed. Apple's recent antenna problems are a classic example of the way tweets can amplify a problem if a company does not quickly solve it.

Where social media gets tricky is when staff start distributing information or - worse - their unedited opinions online. 

In one of the bolder initiatives by a telco, Telstra has published a staff social media guide and posted it online. Its advice is that employees should let others know they work for Telstra, but that they are not speaking for the company, and to make sure any information they impart about the company is accurate.

The company dispenses advice not only on how to behave online as a Telstra employee but on some of the wider pitfalls of social media, like defamation.

The world of sport offers some examples here. The English cricket team is planning to ban its players from tweeting when they are on duty.

Cricket writers know to monitor Twitter; last year an Australian cricketer tweeted that he had been dropped from the side before the official announcement.

Just like any business

Those are all important issues for telcos, but no more so than for any customer-facing business.

Yet service providers do need to consider how social media sites could become a business threat.

Facebook is already most popular US website by page views and is one of the most downloaded iPhone apps. It is on the way to becoming the default site for people experiencing the web and the world of internet apps.

That's a launchpad for a thousand other apps-driven businesses. If you're a telco offering online games, in particular ad-supported games, it is already a rival.

Facebook currently offers chat and mail, and may decide it is worthwhile to offer a voice plug-in service. Or it may partner to set up a mobile apps market.

As the movie tagline says, you don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies on the way.