Friday, 31 October 2014
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Design defining professional social networking

The battle is hotting up between social networking sites for professionals, with a host of new initiatives on the horizon, says Sarah Woods

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace are not synonymous with productivity in the workplace. Yet there has been an explosion in the market of networking sites for businesses which aim to do exactly that, by increasing fruitful activity among the workforce by enabling communication with contacts.

In the past week, mobile operator 3 has been reported to be launching a Facebook phone, while it has emerged that business support website Smarta is to launch its own Facebook-style networking site for entrepreneurs in the autumn, created by digital group Splendid. Meanwhile, Talkbiznow.com, a new British online start-up, is in the last stages of development, designed by co-founder Martin Warner and the site's head of customer experience, designer Jon Foster.

These sites will create fresh competition for longer-standing online networks such as Linked In, designed by an in-house team and launched in 2003, and Workology.com, by Smith & Milton, launched at the beginning of this year.

As the use of this relatively new way to schmooze with others becomes more widespread, it is integral that the sites offer something outstanding against their rivals. Starting with a personal profile, which acts as a mini website to promote yourself, each site will offer the tools to network, but according to the creators, it is the added extras that will get you noticed.

California-based Linked In claims more than 26 million members, with 1.5 million in the UK, more than ten per cent of the professional population. 'Our focus is to continually create features that will provide another effective way to engage and tap into the knowledge of your network, while keeping the design uncluttered,' says Cristina Hoole, Linked In marketing director in Europe. The site's homepage includes several modules such as the 'answers' module, which showcases what questions your network is asking, the 'people' module, which showcases the contacts you can make and the 'jobs' module, which showcases jobs and opportunities.

Within the ever-changing online world, complacency is not an option. It is all about continually updating designs and concepts to stay one step ahead. Workology.com launched early this year and according to Sarah Salter, client services director for Smith & Milton, it stands out with regard to its design, whereas Linked In is 'very functional with no real personality'. The consultancy's vision was popular with the site's founders and it won a pitch for the work in 2007 against WCRS, SPF15 and Exentric. 'We started out by saying these days there is a change in technology and people are in different situations and want to work flexibly,' adds Salter.

'We wanted the site to feel a bit revolutionary. We thought of overground movements such as trade unions as well as revolutionaries of the 21st century such as Google and Facebook and spearheaded a 'dynamic working revolution'. It is a very interactive peer-to-peer site. It is for intelligent people, so it had to be pitched at the right level - we didn't want a gimmicky design or to make it too chatty. It had to have substance so it was taken seriously, but it has got a warmth in the design. There is a new flexible way of working so the design had to feel contemporary and new to reflect this.'

Workology.com's creative director Anuj Goyal points out that the area of work online is becoming an increasingly competitive market, while potential users are giving new work sites less time to make an impact. 'The brand design achieved this differentiation by enabling our users to immediately buy into a sense that they are joining a community of like-minded people who share a forward-looking view on the world of work - as opposed to other work-related sites whose brands focus on appearing the most professional, most function-rich, most easy to use - stuff we consider "hygiene".'

Conversely, Smarta's start-up will aim for a broader target audience. So rather than aiming for the top level, it will help all kinds of businesses and hook them up with information they need. According to Splendid managing director Paul Bishop, 'The design fits with current social networking sites like Facebook and Linked In. We have a fresh design aesthetic that puts people in touch with people and is simple to use.'

'It is a relatively crowded market so there are a lot of competitors. We are not creating exactly the same thing as there needs to be some distinction,' adds Splendid's creative director Simon Parbutt.

Talkbiznow's creators claim the network was designed with the business professional in mind and aims to go one step further with the ability to set up webinars and invite people to take part in business presentations. The site will offer its own 'revolution' within business networking and it will be interesting to see who takes over as the Facebook of this field. Judging by the competition, each network has a virtual fight on its hands to win that honour.

The next generation

Linked In - based on modules. The 'answers' module asks questions relevant to the network; the 'people' module showcases the contacts you can make; and the 'jobs' module shows jobs and opportunities the network can help with. Claims more than 26 million members, with 1.5 million in the UK

Workology - aimed at flexible workers, those who do not work nine to five. Still at beta stage, it has 3500 regular users

Talkbiznow - comes with a range of Productivity Services whereby you can build a profile, host webinars and invite people to take part in business presentations. Aims to have three million users within six months

Smarta - puts those wanting to start or grow a businesses in touch with other entrepreneurs. Set to launch this autumn

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