Over the last three or four years, many have been advocating the use of social media by businesses.
The initial wave of evangelism was aimed at encouraging enterprises to unlock the potential of their employees by providing them with social media facilities for use internally.
The premise was that people were quick to network and communicate with friends and family through public social networks, so give them the same or similar facilities to use at work, and they will interact with colleagues just as enthusiastically.
While the logic was sound, most business leaders were initially dubious about the value, and their concerns were reinforced by the mixed experiences of early adopters.
Even high profile advocates of exploiting social media for internal use, such as IBM, found that in practice, only a minority of the workforce actively participated (in the sense of contributing content) in the early days.
The whole idea of what became known as Enterprise 2.0 didn't get off to a blisteringly successful start.
Fast forward to today, and things are a bit different, as the personal use of social media has continued to develop, expanding to embrace more demographics over time.
Numerous parents, for example, discovered Facebook through their kids, and many others acquired the Twitter habit following its adoption by celebrities, sports people, politicians, activists and journalists.
The rise of the blogger in various circles has also contributed to social media becoming essentially ingrained into the IT fabric of society in large parts of the world.
Beyond this backdrop of increased activity and acceptance, the other big development is that vendors and practitioners have realised that social media use within an enterprise workforce needs to be purposeful.
Apart from the fact that the build-it-and-they-will-come principle is difficult to construct a business case around, having a precise idea of what you are trying to achieve makes it a lot more likely that you will actually realise it.
In practice, this typically means thinking of internal social media as an extension of or adjunct to other initiatives. Players like IBM and Microsoft have integrated social capability into their broader platforms to sit alongside document sharing, messaging, and unified communications functionality.
In this respect, the implicit message is to consider the adoption of social techniques as an extension of more general workforce collaboration and efficiency initiatives, which is an eminently sensible way of looking at it.
Meanwhile, Salesforce.com, once you get past all of the overblown social enterprise bluster, has provided social networking capability as an extension to its CRM environment to enhance the performance of sales and service personnel.
This again makes sense by providing focus and objectivity.
The bottom line, as we at Freeform Dynamics have been advising from the outset, is to think of social media adoption within the enterprise in the context of specific business processes.
As with other areas of technology, you might invest in reusable infrastructure, but initiatives to exploit it must be purposeful, even if that's only to run a pilot to understand the benefits and practicalities.
Going hand in hand with this is the provision of guidance on how you expect social directories, chat functions and blogs to be used by employees.
This is important as, contrary to what we often hear, our recent consumerisation research tells us that the natural inclination of employees to use social media for work purposes is actually relatively weak.
People often access personal Facebook accounts from their desk, but that typically has nothing to do with their work.
Switching tack, a conversation that has gathered significant momentum recently is around how much enterprises should be considering tapping into relevant activity taking place among the general population on public social networking sites.
The premise is that customers, prospects and influencers may be talking about matters that are relevant to your organisation, or even discussing your brand, products and services explicitly. This in turn can have an influence on your business.
In terms of potential investments and projects, this can stimulate three potential types of initiative, all of which are related to different aspects of CRM.
1 To monitor and analyse what's being said
This gives you the opportunity to do something about it, such as deal with an emerging product issue before it escalates or manage a perception problem before it becomes a PR crisis.
More positively, you may identify a trend or event that can be exploited to drive incremental business.
Related to this, a lot of people are using the terms such as 'sentiment analysis' and 'reputation management' in the context of public social network activity.
The difficulty, of course, is that social networks are notoriously noisy, which means that identifying and extracting relevant information can be a challenge.
If you are looking for something specific in a particular feed, like certain keywords, simple filtering tools and techniques are available.
For more comprehensive analysis involving text processing, statistical trending and dependency modelling, some of the developments around big data are likely to be relevant.
Solutions emerging in this space permit cost effective crunching of extremely large data sets that have a poor signal to noise ratio.
2 For customer service
We have discussed this more comprehensively in a previous CIO article. Suffice it to say that the basic idea is to think in terms of virtual communities of customers, then build bridges between your internal CRM environment and the public networks that customers frequent.
The important principle here is to go where customers are already active rather than expecting them to come to you.
3 To boost sales
While the same principle sounds relevant in theory, it can create some challenges.
Reaching into peoples' personal space and network to provide help is usually seen as positive, but as soon as you start to sell and promote it can feel very intrusive.
Network providers are working on how best to allow businesses to engage commercially without losing user goodwill.
While efforts continue on this, creating a corporate presence in situ, such as a company Facebook site or branded Twitter page, is one way of promoting your business from within the network itself.
Pulling all these threads together, social media in its various forms does represent a potential business opportunity.
If you have never considered getting social as a business, or if it's been a while since you last explored this area, it's probably worth looking again as things have changed very rapidly over the past couple of years.
The important principle to bear in mind, however, is the need to be precise and objective when evaluating options and defining initiatives. Business benefit must remain front of mind, and efforts have to be prioritised and focused.
Dale Vile is CEO of Freeform Dynamics