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Knowing where the crowd is going

Sharp business people have a knack for knowing where the crowd is going. They stay informed, listen for subtle signals, and move to profit from their knowledge. Whether it's a neighborhood pizza shop or a multinational corporation, knowing where the customers are headed is priceless.

Today, these business people have a powerful tool called social networking. They are using it to not only listen to their customers, but to start conversations with them, conversations about new products, special deals and desires. This instantaneous back-and-forth with customers was unimaginable not long ago. Now, it is a must-have gadget in the tool belt.

But what exactly is it?

Social networking on the Internet refers to groups of people linked through a network service, like Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. These people can communicate individually or with the entire group. The groups can be formed around a common bond, like a school or class, or a common interest, like sports or arts. And the communication is instant.

Some businesses got dragged into social networking when people made negative comments about their products or services and a response was needed. Others have recognized the networks as a new way to reach people, especially young people.

Hundreds of millions of people use these networks every day and businesses understand that their current and future customers are there, waiting to be talked to and heard from. But it's a bit like jumping down the rabbit hole: Once a business joins in, it has to stay and keep up its part of the conversation.

In this edition of Prospectus, we have tried to tap into that virtual vibe to understand how the most nimble companies are using social networking. Some are staying ahead of the competition by creating a buzz about their companies and offering specials, while others are just trying to understand how they can navigate and prosper in the new media landscape.

Western NewYork has plenty of clever business people who get it. Banks are tweeting customers about personal finance issues, casinos are keeping gamblers in close contact, and grocery stores are sending out deal information to savvy shoppers. But that's just the beginning.

One expert says that all companies are morphing into media companies, telling their own stories and making their messages enticing for
their Internet fans and followers.

Skeptics may shrug it off as a fad, but take a look at the nearest teenager. Chances are that kid is texting a message. Sharp business people want that text to be to them.