Social networking has contractors all atwitter

Individuals are leading a ground swell of use of social-networking tools as a way to network and gather information on the government market.

Twittering, which once meant to tremble with excitement, has a new meaning today, joining the quiver of social-networking tools, such as LinkedIn, Facebook and GovLoop.com, that are exciting the contracting community.

“A couple of years ago, if you wanted to know about somebody, you’d go on Google and google them and get their bio,” said Sid Fuchs, president and chief executive officer of OAO Technology Solutions Inc. “Now I go to LinkedIn or Facebook to see what I can find out about them before I go to Google.”

Scott Burns, chief executive officer of GovDelivery Inc., a facilitator for transmitting government information to citizens, likened the state of social media to the early days of e-mail.

Everyone wanted to use it, he said, especially because the medium was virtually free. But when GovDelivery began offering its e-mail support services to agencies for a fee, the initial reaction was why pay for something that is free.

“We said, ‘It’s free to use it, but it’s not free to use it well,’ ” Burns said. “To use it well and in an engaging way that builds a permanent audience for your information is not always as easy as setting up a Twitter feed.”

Burns said he encourages government clients to take advantage of social networking because of its ability to inform hundreds of thousands of people almost instantly.

For example, GovDelivery recently helped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rapidly disseminate crucial information about the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus to Twitter accounts, personal blogs, e-mail addresses and public access media such as Facebook and MySpace.

Growing corporate interest

During the past 20 months, more companies have developed digital strategies to include social media, Gal Borenstein, CEO and strategist at the Borenstein Group Inc., wrote recently in an industry white paper.

“Successful companies are adapting their entire communications strategy, including adjusting marketing, public relations and advertising activities to ensure that they engage government stakeholders before and throughout the entire proposal process,” he said.

But despite its benefits, social networking has not yet been universally accepted by the business community. As of mid-April, only 12.2 percent of Fortune 500 companies reported maintaining blogs and fewer still said they were using Twitter and other social media, according to the Fortune 500 Business Blogging Wiki.

The biggest challenge to creating a corporate social network is not choosing the platform to use or the software to run it. “The biggest challenge is getting people to see the value in it,” said Steve Radick, an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton.

People value their privacy and they need to know why it’s important to post their photos, age, degrees, work experience and other biographical information online, he said.

The need is to “illustrate the ‘what’s in it for me?’ to everyone so they see the actual value in creating a profile and interacting with people,” Radick said.

Security and control — or the lack of them — play a major role in the reluctance to open new, uncontrolled lines of communication.

Individuals ahead of the curve

But if some entities have been slow to embrace social networking, individuals within the government contracting community are eagerly joining special interest groups and creating their own blogs and wikis.

Dubious at first about the value of Twitter and other similar tools, Steve Lunceford, a spokesman at Deloitte, tracked some sites last year to see whether they had any value to him professionally.

“I found that a lot of our clients or potential clients were out there using those tools,” he said. “I found this very rich community of people talking about the same sort of things that we talk about from a consulting standpoint.”

As a result, Lunceford created GovTwit.com, a directory to help people in the government community connect with one another. “When I started that in November of last year, there were about 100 to 150 names on the list. There’s about 1,100 at this point,” he said.

“The ability to interact and connect with people is so much greater today than it was even 18 or 24 months ago,” he said.

Other popular sites tracked by Livingston’s blog include GovLoop, which has some 10,000 government community members, and TFCN, the Federal Contracting Network, which includes about 8,000 contracting employees.

Aimed at the broader information technology community, Toolbox for IT offers a number of special interest groups — including security, wireless, emerging technologies and project management — for its 1.4 million professional members.

Toolbox for IT is a multimillion-dollar business with more than $8 million in advertising revenue and 1.7 million pages of user-generated content as of Jan. 1, 2008, according to Livingston’s blog.

A tool for business

Social media also has become a huge database of information about companies in the contracting community, OAO’s Fuchs said.

“We’ve actually been able to contribute to those blogs and e-conversations, and it’s actually generated some interest in our company from people who didn’t really know about us,” he said.

Also, social networking is especially popular with job seekers these days, said Fuchs, who added that he gets many requests from LinkedIn users for introductions to some of his more than 500 LinkedIn contacts because “it’s great for trying to find the right people.”

Fuchs said he can always tell when someone is looking for a job because suddenly that person’s LinkedIn bio page is filled with new recommendations from friends and former colleagues. “I call it the recommendation gauge,” he said.

Fuchs said he believes social media will continue to grow in importance and usefulness as indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity task orders become more widespread.

“A lot of times those task orders will ask for a four- or five-day turnaround, so the return cycle is a lot faster. So when employers are looking for [people with] the right skill sets for programs, they’re going to go to LinkedIn,” Fuchs said. “You’re going to see a lot more of the talent pool coming from that sort of resource versus hiring a recruiter.”

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