It’s one thing to discuss whether Facebook is a useful professional social networking tool. The answer is: it is if you want it to be. It’s another issue to uncover which are the most relevant social networks for your professional life, and to use these effectively. The most important connections for most professionals (who are deep knowledge specialists in their domain of expertise) are their peers. As such, it often makes sense to belong to specialist social networks.
This relates strongly to the well-established field of Communities of Practice. Many organizations have established communities of experts in specific domains who share insights into what they’re learning, answer questions, and build knowledge collectively. Less often communities of practice span organizational boundaries, for example with clients or suppliers. Certainly there is almost always some kind of boundary on who can participate. Now that, over the last seven years or so, we have worked out the fundamentals of effective online social networking platforms, these are ripe to be applied to specialist domains. This enables an opening out of what were formerly closed communities, to provide useful platforms for experts to share not just knowledge, but also social connections. It is important to recognize that the current crop of social networking tools are now highly evolved applications that go substantially beyond the tools that have previously been available. Since being a professional of any kind requires keeping on top of massive amounts of information and new developments, effective social networks are invaluable in keeping on top of that.
New York Times Wall Street Journal has a good article titled Social Networking Goes Professional, which outlines some of the current crop of specialist professional social networks, and their business models. The ones they mention, plus a couple of others I’m familiar with, are:
Sermo. Licensed physicians go to each other for advice, and get access to relevant content.
Reuters networking. Soon-to-be-released network for financial professionals who are clients of Reuters, with controls and audit trail functionality. This will build on Reuters’ closed IM and collaboration platform.
INmobile.org. Network for senior mobile telecoms executives, alongside other executive forum-style activities.
Adgabber. Open network to discuss advertising and the latest ads.
E-Factor. European-based network for entrepreneurs to share knowledge and advice.
Damsels in Success. Women-only professional networking site, focusing on career and business issues.
The business models can become far more pointed with a clear target audience. For example, Sermo charges $100,000+ for financial institutions and others to access the medical discussions, so they can assess doctor’s responses to new drugs or medical advances. Since INmobile is also an executive forum, it has related offers to bring in revenue.
Greg Sterling and Joshua Porter believe more specialist social networks are coming, while Andy Beal thinks that the trend shows that the web is growing up. There is no doubt that more, and more effective, social networks for specific groups are going to flourish. Of course far, far more of these ventures will fail than succeed, but those that make it will be creating a very high level of value to professionals in their work.