Simon Rush, Divisional Sales and Marketing Information Manager at ACAL Technology reveals how the current trend in social networking sites can lead to new business potential in unpresidented circles

Whilst many companies prevent their employees from accessing online social networking sites at work, there are companies such as ACAL Technology who are actively encouraging their product managers and engineers to dive into the social networking pool.

When ACAL first began to explore online social networking, it was to open a dialogue with the next generation of design engineers. However, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn soon delivered some unexpected benefits.

YouTube offers the most obvious benefits to business: Conceived as a medium for individuals to broadcast themselves by uploading home-made video, YouTube is also a cost-effective platform for companies to share video-based information with customers and internal teams across multiple locations. The site is a fast and easy way to deliver content such as factory tours, corporate overviews, technical tutorials and product demonstrations and ACAL have a number of videos available here, addressing topics such as power design, programming, fibre-optic assembly and embedded systems.

Launched in 2003, LinkedIn is targetted at the business community. The professional equivalent of Facebook, this site allows members to display their career resumé, to find other professionals, exchange comments and ideas through special-interest forums, or ask business-related questions.

On a commercial level, LinkedIn provides customers with access to the resumés of technical teams. This knowledge allows customers to assess the relevance of each engineer’s knowledge and experience in relation to their own design issues.

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Networks such as this can provide access to real-world, real-time comment through member groups. For example LinkedIn provides ACAL with access to real-world, real-time comment through member groups on M2M communications, electronic component distribution and semiconductor sales and marketing groups. ACAL’s own LinkedIn group, ACALTech, delivers information on new activities, products and technologies into the market and returns feedback from the global engineering community. By participating in these groups, companies can gain valuable insights into the questions and issues which concern both engineers and end-users. Members’ questions, such as ‘Who can set up and support an IP VPN tunnel?’ or ‘How viable is secure positioning in wireless networks?’ not only gives the ability to open a dialogue with a potential new customer, but also provides a useful barometer for assessing the ground-swell of engineering opinion and end-user expectations.

More surprising perhaps, is ACAL’s decision to interact with engineers using Twitter. By asking the question, ‘What are you doing?’ and limiting answers to a maximum of 140 characters, the site has attracted 10 million registered users.

Initially, ACAL’s perception was that the typical Twitter user would be a student or a newly qualified engineer. For this generation, online social networks are as familiar as PDAs and blackberries were to previous generations. The reality though is different. The Twitter community reaches across all age groups, sectors and geographies, ranging from one-man consultancies to major, blue-chip companies. Its self-help culture appeals to engineers, and the scepticism of the ACAL technical team was soon replaced by genuine interest after their first Twittered conversations with engineers.

Using TweetDeck, ACAL monitors activity from customers, end-users and manufacturers across different networking sites and gets answers in seconds. Monitoring the site offers a crucial insight into emerging trends, such as high levels of activity coming from new engineers in India, concerns that engineers express about new technologies, or customer expectations of future products.

Of course, there are challenges with social networking. It is important to deliver resources appropriately and to identify early in the exchange whether there is genuine business potential. It is important to respond to people at all levels, and where there is little or no business potential, then an alternative source of advice and support can be suggested.

The global impact of online networks will shape the way in which business will grow and develop over the next few years. It will widen the audience from the narrow confines of the electronics industry and reach millions of engineers and end-users worldwide.

It provides fast and cost-effective market research too. By listening to customers and manufacturers a company can acquire insights which can help them with stock profiling and with the strategic delivery of resources. If, for example, there are a high number of comments and questions from engineers who have difficulties with a new technology, then dedicated internal resources can be used to address the problems as well as provide an online tutorial on YouTube, or posting advice on Twitter.