When I told Lew Frees, of Harmony Inc., that I was writing this article he told me a story about how the Beatles created the album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sergeant Pepper came out in June of 1967. Of all the Beatles many albums it represented a genre breakthrough bringing all kinds of new sounds and instruments into the music mix.

According to Paul McCartney Sergeant Pepper was developed during a period when the Beatles had stopped touring and found themselves with time on their hands to experience other art and music forms. McCartney credits the unique sounds and ideas expressed in the album to this collective consciousness raising.

I listened to the interview in which McCartney described that incredibly creative period. McCartney states:

"The ideas were coming fast and thick. All sorts of new ideas, artistically, politically and musically…there was a big cross fertilization….it was a great time for experimentation, and it all found its way into our music."

So in a sense Sergeant Pepper came from the collective input of many people, a social network, leading to a totally new sound that transcended the Beatles themselves and established them as the premier rock band of all time.

Frees comments, "the Beatles intuitively extracted from each influence those qualities that could contribute to their work without becoming distracted by qualities that did not." This is an essential aspect of the power of social networks as forums for bringing to light the best qualities and attributes necessary to solve business challenges.

Faith Exeter, President of Enable Consultants, developers of private social networking applications, states, "It doesn't matter whether its old or new media, businesses need to engage customers in building their brand." This has never been truer.

Today customers drive sales because they have the means through the Internet to independently research, educate themselves and find solutions to their organizational problems. Gone are the days of the customer representative being the sole source of information.

Web content has changed the rules and search engines have made finding information a simple process. Add to this the ability to rapidly communicate on public social networks and you have all the tools in place for an organization to lose control of the message and brand. Negative messages about a company's products can go viral in a matter of days. A YouTube posting can be viewed by millions in a matter of hours.

A branded social network focused on business goals introduces multiple-modes of rich interaction including multimedia, blogs, short-messaging blog boards, document sharing, pod casting, chat, private email, discussion groups, and event sharing and calendars. All these web gadgets are friendly, easy-to-use, and familiar to digital natives. So many of them are available in public social networks today and look at how quickly Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, to name three, have grown.

Here are four examples of how private enterprise-based social networking can be used by a business to engage customers.

  1. Customer Service and Support Virtual Rooms
    A company can create a dedicated room for this function inviting customers and members of its support team to interact. As customers interact with the support team the company begins to build a knowledge base that is accessible to all who enter the support room. Customers can be rewarded for interaction through loyalty points programs. "Ask the expert" chat rooms can deal with customer issues in a friendly and informative way. Customers can contribute to blogs and comments. Important documents and files can be shared. Video and other multimedia support can address common customer "how to" issues.
  2. Support Escalation Virtual Rooms
    A company can create an internal support room not visible to the public. In this room company experts can collaborate on issues that customers raise. Collective wisdom can be applied to customer problems and then fed back into the public facing service and support room as well as to public social network pages.
  3. Customer Community Virtual Rooms
    More and more companies are experimenting with online private social communities focused on customer engagement and retention. These sites can be used to extend web conversations that start on public sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. For example iCoke.ca, the Canadian Coca Cola online community encourages members to create a profile, get involved in quizzes and polls, collect iCoke points on special product promotions, enter contests, and cash in points for rewards. The end result is the fostering of greater customer brand loyalty.
  4. Sharing Challenges Virtual Rooms
    To many organizations admitting customers into the process of problem solving can be unnerving. But the truth is customers may be the best source for a company to create new ideas, products and services. Within this type of room invited customers can brainstorm with members of the company's design teams, looking at new processes, methodologies, and product ideas. Customer contributions can be acknowledged and rewarded furthering the brand loyalty bond.

Related Articles: How Enterprise 2.0 Sales Teams Will Use Social Networks and Social Networking in the Enterprise: What’s the ROI?

Frees describes the ultimate merits of an enterprise social network when he states, "enterprise social networks are the central nervous system of collective intelligence in a business. Whether the knowledge requirements are complex such as n bringing a new product to market, or minuscule in addressing a customer service or support issue, the responsiveness and fluidity of such networks makes them invaluable."