As any business publisher worth their salt knows, social networking is a fickle mistress. To agencies and the Magnum-size advertisers they serve, it’s the “new-new,” a must-have technology surrounded by high levels of expectation and excitement not seen since the Internet bubble of the 1990s.

But to people like us—publishers who are supposed to use social networking technology like Twitter, blogs and message boards to build online communities for business professionals—it’s just the new problem. A really big new problem, actually, since social networking has the potential to make or break your business, depending on how you implement it.

It’s Called ‘Social Networking,’ Not ‘Business Networking’

Social networking isn’t like other new technologies. When podcasts were all the rage a few years ago, we all rolled out sponsored programs even though we knew the engagement levels sucked. But there was no way to know that podcast programs were a big fat failure unless you were in the tiny minority of advertisers who actually read their campaign reports.

Social networking is the absolute opposite, because if you add message boards and other highly visible evidence of community engagement to your site, and no one uses them, then everyone can see that your shiny new product sucks the big one.

And that’s the rub, because most new b-to-b social networks don’t work, which is causing headaches all across the business publishing industry, where companies have been busy launching community Web sites whose message boards are populated only by the sound of crickets chirping and the occasional tumbleweed.

Why aren’t these sites taking off? Well, there’s a reason they call it “social networking” rather than “business networking.” There is in fact NO REASON why a technology that works in a horizontal consumer space should be transferable to a vertical business market, and it isn’t. This really comes down to simple math. Say you start a social network about car engines. Brrrrm! There’s going to be a large potential audience of enthusiasts who will be interested in plopping themselves on your site and talking about, well, car engines.

But things are rather different if your site is about VOIP-based integrated multimedia applications designed to run over DSL last mile networks. First, there are only 300 people in the U.S. who know about said topic. Second, they are probably not interested in talking to other people about this subject on a public Web site.

What is the answer? It’s quite simple. And it’s the same answer to pretty much all questions in business publishing. (No, not alcohol.) It’s content. In order to convince important people to talk about important things you need to lure them to your social network, and keep them pinned there, with large amounts of proprietary information. Produced by, like, editors and stuff.

Unfortunately, in these recessionary times, anyone who suggests publishers should actually increase the amount they spend on content is likely to be as popular as a fart at a funeral.

Accountants Versus Editors

When I present my roadmap for profitable b-to-b publishing (modestly titled “Steve Saunders’ Roadmap for Profitable B2B Publishing”) to potential clients, I lead with the importance of content. This is a good strategy in that it assures me lots of time with my adorable children. But it is not a very good way to enlist new customers. That’s because while most publisher types like to say that they truly value content, (oh yes, oh my, we really, really do!) they actually don’t. In my 23 years of business publishing, I have yet to see a salesperson get pinked before the copy desk takes a bullet, and it’s always the E-i-C’s discretionary bonus that seems to get cut before that of the VP of sales.

In our industry, money talks, and copy walks. Which is all quite ironical, when it comes down to it, since the only reason business publishing has existed for the last hundred or so years is because people are prepared to pay to put their message next to proprietary high value information. Social networking technology doesn’t make that go away it makes it more important.

Sadly, in most publishing companies, the battle between content and common sense comes down to a tug of war between the accountants and editor types. And we know how that one ends.

Steve Saunders is an independent media consultant and the founder of Internet Evolution ( He can be reached at