Since the Internet first made an impact on our lives and businesses in the mid to late 1990’s there have been two parallel and largely independent streams of development. The first which we could call the “transactional” Internet is the one that businesses have been investing in to support their commercial interactions with their customers and partners. The other is the “social” Internet which is where people gather, connect and interact with each other for a wide variety of personal, recreational and social reasons.

All distinctions will be artificial to an extent, since there are usually business interests behind all social Internet applications. However this differentiation between transactional and social spaces is a useful simplification to help us understand the current challenge for business as greater numbers of their customers are spending much much of their time in the ever-expanding social Internet.

The Transactional Internet
The transactional Internet  has matured greately over the last 15 years. The first business websites saw businesses transferring their paper-based literature onto the web creating what we called “brochure-ware” websites. Many of these early websites developed into graphically appealing sites with sophisticated animations. We all remember the homepages of Irish websites where the first interaction for all users was to click on the “Skip Intro” button.

At the height of the dot-com bubble many Irish businesses invested in new, untried business models – completely new products and services that would see them reap the promise of the hype that existed at that time. Examples such as Fyffes’ World of Fruit and Eircom’s Rondomondo stand as testament to the willingness of Irish businesses to invest at the bleeding edge of Internet developments. The harsh lessons learned by many at this time resulted in a far more cautious approach in the early part of this decade.

Thankfully the past few years have seen more considered investment in Internet technologies by businesses. We have seen a greater focus on the transfer of core processes onto the web; supporting increased customer demand to transact in this way and delivering internal efficiencies and growth potential. This approach that looks at the sales and service transactions customers are currently undertaking with an organisation and web-enabling them is beginning to deliver tangible and immediate benefits to organisations.

The Social Internet
From the beginning, the Internet has supported social interactions. The very earliest Internet-based communications tools such as email, web chat and discussion forums are all still popular. However there has been a virtual explosion in tools that enable far more sophisticated communications online. These include one-to-one communications tools such as Internet-telephony and video-calling services such as Skype. Virtual realities such as Second Life allow indivduals to create online personas that can explore three-dimensional worlds and interact with others, simulating real-world activities.

However the greatest and more pervasive development in the social Internet is made possible by the vast range of tools that allow individuals to communicate with groups of people or with the entire Internet community with an ease that was only previously available to web developers. Web applications such as YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, WordPress, Blogger, Bebo, Wikipedia, MySpace and Twitter, are all part of the social Internet that enables indivduals to create and share personal information, advice, opinions, news, stories and events with a worldwide audience with just a few clicks of a mouse.

While many of the specific applications will come and go, the activity of invididuals connecting, sharing and conversing using Internet technologies is certainly not going to disappear anytime soon.

Shall ever the twain meet?
The transactional Internet has started to deliver real benefits with many Irish businesses now seeing significant proportions of their transactions being undertaken by customers and partners online. It is very easy to see how the travel and tourism, fincancial services, retail and recruitment sectors (to mention but a few) have been transformed in recent years by the Internet. The Social Internet has never been so pervasive with at least 1 million Irish people registered on just one of the major social network websites.

These Internet developments have progressed broadly in isolation of each other. Many business managers consider social Internet tools to be a fad, like earlier Dot Com much-hyped websites, and are therefore are slow to invest. Also, their communications models don’t fit well in a world where everyone can make comment true or false about your brand seemingly without reproach.

Internet users who enjoy using the social Internet are slow to trust businesses that seek to intrude uninvited in their social interactions. Many feel that there is already enough advertising on the Internet and consumers don’t want their personal spaces cluttered with more marketing bumph.

The challenge for businesses who wish to enagage more meaningfully with their customers is to find more appropriate ways to engage in this space. An real-world example might help to point us in a useful direction.

Imagine you are the CEO of a business and on a Saturday evening are at a neighbour’s barbecue. During the course of the evening you overhear some neighbours talking about their experiences, both positive and negative, with your business. What do you do? Eavesdrop for a while, saying nothing, and then go into your office on Monday morning instructing your marketing people to develop and publish new material that counters some of the issues you feel were highlighted iin your neighbours’ conversation? Probably not.

Because you care about the business you run, you’ll probably walk over to the group, introduce yourself and try to understand what the issues these customers are experiencing so that you might see if you can go and fix them as quickly as possible. Right? Well this is certainly the approach that your neighbours would like to see, if they found out that you were the CEO of that business, and certainly the approach that your shareholders would expect of you.

The Social Internet is full of conversations about Irish businesses. To date we have seen only a handful of Irish organsiations actively participating in these conversations. Afraid of losing control of our “message” we have instead gone back to our agencies to see how we can develop advertising and PR campaigns to counter negative customer sentiment. There are other models and starting next Tuesday the IIA blog will feature weekly case studies, written by members of the Social Media Working Group, showing how some Irish businesses have tried a different approach.