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Networking in The Virtual World

One of the biggest buzzwords in business today is “social networking,” but many drycleaners are out of the loop. Social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have their own vocabulary — but is it gibberish?
When websites were new, some drycleaners jumped right in; others thought they were unimportant. Some waited and built websites as they became expected, but still might wonder why. After all, you sell drycleaning, not computers.
With social networking, some of you — 52%, according to last month’s Wire survey — jumped right in, and use some form of social media. Most of you are aware of social networks, since Twitter has been prominent in the news recently. But many aren’t sure where to start.
Social networks launched to help enhance the connections people make. As people move and travel more than ever before, the Internet has grown; it makes sense to use it to stay in touch. When you want to share events and information with friends and colleagues, social networking plays an important role.
The social media offer free opportunities for friends, acquaintances and the public to share experiences, locations, pictures and videos with one another. Launched for college kids, Facebook alone has captured an entire generation of Internet users, and there are 6 billion new videos on YouTube every month.
Additional networks include Yelp!, which helps users rate business services, Loopt for sharing locations, and Delicious and Digg for sharing bookmarks. Each represents millions of users.
In addition to sharing personal experiences, users often work together on these sites. Not only have amateurs shared more than 3 billion photos on Flickr, but 35 million users have helped tag them with searchable keywords.
An even better example of voluntary participation is the user-generated encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Almost 10 million people contribute to Wikipedia, and it is now as accurate and bigger than the Encyclopedia Britannica.
There are also user groups for like-minded people and professionals. Yahoo! hosts 7.8 million groups on every subject; Google has 3.9 million. You can also share what you’re thinking and doing (Twitter), what you’re reading (StumbleUpon), and even your personal-finance strategies (Wesabe).
Young people helped popularize social-media tools, but every age group is adopting them. How many of your friends use Facebook? President Obama raised millions of dollars and recruited millions of volunteers through his own website and others. And Twitter was the perfect instant-messaging system to let people know what not to miss at Clean ’09.
Changes in the ways people communicate with each other are beginning to affect the economics of business. Every site mentioned is free to users, but ads target individual tastes and behaviors. On the Internet, ads don’t need to target a general audience such as “people aged 34 to 49 who watch Law & Order.” Now, ads can be generated for a person who identifies herself as a “45-year-old teacher from the Bronx with three kids who owns her own home.”
What does this mean for drycleaners? The industry traditionally lags behind other businesses in using new technologies. In the U.S., more drycleaners are now providing e-mail alerts, but those in other countries offer instant-message reminders as a successful added-value benefit to customers.
Business-to-business networks such as LinkedIn may offer the best return for drycleaners today, since much customer growth still comes from word-of-mouth or signage. But you still must have an informative and easy-to-use website.
Social networking isn’t just for telling friends what you had for breakfast. It is an effective communications tool that helps mobilize the masses and eases customer communication. And this is just the beginning — participate in social networking and you’ll be the first to discover its many opportunities as they arrive.

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].