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Sara Weber talks about social media

For many people, the term “social media” means Facebook. Given that the site attracts more than 955 million visitors each month, it's easy to see why. But IBM's Sara Weber sees things differently.

“When I think about social media, I think of a definition coined by Anthony Bradley of Gartner: 'an online environment established for the purpose of mass collaboration,'” she says. That ability to share is one of the biggest promises of social media, especially for businesses. The other is the marriage of analytics and the massive amounts of information available through social media and elsewhere online.



Collaboration is key

Collaboration is immensely important for today's business, says Weber, who heads a team that uses emerging technologies to improve the way IBM gets things done. One such advance is an application created by her team that uses social data to locate IBMers, finding a person from more than 400,000 global employees with an average of nine keystrokes.

"IBMers want to help each other, but they have trouble finding the right people," says Weber. "Social media is helping us find the experts. It takes a very large corporation and makes it feel small allowing us to get to those people very easily."

One in two users of social networks post post information about products, brands and/or companies. Of those posts, less than 10 percent are negative. - InSites Consulting
Social collaboration represents a whole new frontier for business process management. - Anthony Bradley, Gartner

There is also an emotional aspect. "Through use of social media we feel like we know each other, even if we have never met face to face. That's helping enable the cultural shift in the world from an ownership model to a sharing model. Postings help give you the feeling that you know the person and are therefore more likely to trust and help that person," she says.

An increase in trust can also apply to a company and its customers. "Social media allows companies to find the people within the whole population who are truly interested in their products," Weber says. "That provides a much more targeted approach.” For example, posts from people about a new software release not only provide feedback, they also identify users who are very interested, if not committed to the product—a valuable asset for beta testing and marketing.



Mining social media

For businesses, analytics—technologies that can pluck insights from masses of data—are the handmaiden of social media. With analytics, for example, a company can examine millions of social media posts and determine not only the sentiment of the audience but also which individuals have issues and which are favorably disposed to a product or brand. "Those with issue need to be reached with more targeted advertising when the issue is addressed, and the company can foster its relationship with the online champions."

"I buy a lot of ebooks," says Weber. "And I post my opinions about them online. As a result, I get targeted ads telling me that one of the authors I read has a new book coming out. I appreciate that. That's something I want to know."

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with having their online lives examined so closely. Social media sites are continually rebalancing their users' privacy with the potential revenue from sharing data. Facebook in particular has had to rescind some privacy changes after backlash from its members. And in Europe, there are already laws that restrict how much data social media can collect and share. Weber expects that eventually some sort of privacy regulation will appear in the U.S.

Social networking by the numbers: 1.5 billion - Social network users worldwide . 1 billion - Facebook users, active monthly. 140 million - Twitter users tweeting 340 million tweets a day. 400 million - Google+ memebers.



Emerging markets such as Argentina, Brazil & India have the highest penetration of social network usage. Further, they have the highest usage frequency and intensity as well. - Source: InSites Consulting

Looking ahead

Weber sees the benefits of social media—both within and outside businesses—growing for the foreseeable future. "People have been using social media for many years but as more and more people see value in it, it continues to grow and that means more content producing more value. People and businesses will find different ways to share, and when a new use emerges and shows value it will go viral, as we saw happen when Pinterest entered the arena."

She also envisions a technology that could monitor a person's social media presence and use that information to update a professional profile. That means if you posted a remark or presented a paper on a topic, it would automatically be added to your profile.

"That could mean that typical human resource systems that have existed for years are going to go away and be replaced by applications showing real time data."