The social network that may soon be in almost every store

Enterprise social networking is set to rev the speed of sales for clothing chains and restaurant franchises.

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Retail might not be the first business sector that comes to mind when discussing enterprise social networking (ESN). But according to technology pundits and insiders, that’s about to change.

Several retailers already use software to analyze discussions about their brands and services in public social media. For instance, Tommy Bahama, the Seattle-based clothing company, uses Salesforce.com’s applications to track and connect with shoppers on Twitter and Facebook. Salesforce.com says the technology automatically contacts customers who post negative comments, enabling Tommy Bahama to remedy whatever caused the customer’s complaint.

In future, however, many retailers will benefit from ESN—a sort of Facebook for corporations, where employees can connect quickly with each other and share information. “While most people may think of ESNs related to technology companies, there are many examples of retail companies using social networking,” says Alan Lepofsky, Toronto-based VP and principal analyst with Constellation Research.

Live feedback

Mumba Cloud CEO Anthony Zets tackled this topic in a recent Tech Republic article. He argued that a retailer could use ESN to collect live feedback from store managers during a weekend promotion. This link to consumers would give managers at HQ instant information about the effectiveness of the chain-wide sale. Speed of data would also afford the company more time to consider ways to improve future promotional activities.

ESN is “the future of retail,” according to Microsoft retail-industry solution manager Greg Jones. In a column for Retail Info Systems News, he suggests a retailer could use the technology to give shop-floor staff prompt updates on inventory levels in the stock room and at the retailer’s other locations.

“Just as email accelerated the pace of business in the ’90s, enterprise social networking will be the new cornerstone of communication and collaboration that will drive greater speed and competitive advantages in retail,” Jones writes.

Choosing a platform

But if retailers really want to benefit from ESN, they should bear a few things in mind, especially with respect to choosing an ESN platform. In his recent report on Purposeful Collaboration, Constellation’s Lepofsky recommends going with an ESN vendor that has retail experience. Industry expertise is at least as important as the number of features the ESN system has. “Simply choosing the most feature-rich tool will not work if it does not meet your specific needs,” Lepofsky writes.

Companies should seek out vendors that have customers similar to yours in size, industry and geography, he says. “Does the vendor have an active community that you can join or events you can attend to learn and network?”

Many ESN providers do have reference retail clients. For example, Yammer spotlights Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. The chain’s restaurant managers used Yammer to discuss customer complaints about a new burger recipe. Red Robin management took note of those exchanges and improved the recipe based in part on those comments. Meanwhile, Jive Software points to Yum! Brands (a.k.a. KFC, Pizza Hut and other well known restaurants), which uses ESN to develop “global know-how” across its expanding operations. A manager in one area can request ideas for a new pizza and within hours receive replies from around the world.

Retailers with multiple locations already use high-speed networks to connect stores and offices, so they have the infrastructure to support ESN. In time, more of these companies will implement the technology—and ESN will be considered as much a retail-suited technology as a technology for financial services and IT.

Before you set up a social network, make sure you’ve got the right IP network. Download the case study on how Allstream worked with BCBGMAXAZRIA to connect securely with managed MPLS.

Image courtesy of phanlop88 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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