Imagine shopping for a new car and having 80 auto makers to choose from. Intimidating, right?

Well, to all small businesses planning to set up an in-house social network, consider yourselves warned. The more popular social networks become and companies see the benefit of deploying them internally as well as externally, the more technology vendors venture into the business. Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., estimates 80 companies now offer enterprise social network platforms, and dozens more sell software and services for blogging, wikis and other iterations of Web 2.0.

But before meeting with sales reps, company managers should consider what they want an internal social network to do, who'll use it, and how it could grow over time -- in other words have a plan. Those decisions will drive the technology and delivery method you choose, industry experts say.

Determine how a network will be used

A company may want an in-house network -- often referred to as a community or employee network when it's inside a business -- to:

  • Foster collaboration between workers
  • Identify and cultivate 'star' employees
  • Maintain the corporate knowledge pool
  • Keep tabs on departing employees

Certain vendors are better at some niches than others, says Rachel Happe, a research manager with technology researcher at IDC. Or a company might start an employee network now and add an in-house blog or other Web 2.0 applications later, so they'll want a platform that can grow with them, she says.

When Scott Westfahl left his professional development job at McKinsey & Co.for a similar post in Washington D.C., at Goodwin Procter, a high-profile law firm, he wanted to duplicate the same high-caliber alumni network McKinsey operated. That led him to partner with SelectMinds, a social network vendor that got started creating university alumni networks.

Goodwin Procter's alumni network debuted in September 2006, and includes a searchable employee and alumni directory, job board, and career counseling center. Since then, 70 percent of the firm's current attorneys have signed on, as well as 550 alumni. It's become a great tool for, among other things, helping associates who don't make the partnership track to find new jobs, Westfahl says. 'I want them to be part of our network because they could be a potential client, but it also shows that the firm still cares about their development after they leave.'

Other factors companies should consider when choosing an enterprise network platform:

  • Whether to license social network software or sign up with a hosted, software-as-a-service provider. Companies with an IT staff might choose the former, while companies without much technical expertise might choose the later.
  • What person or people will oversee the network? Depending on how it's used, that individual could come from product development, marketing or HR, analysts say.
  • What policies are needed to address issues of proper use, security, and privacy? Policies should be set down in writing. 'Will you let employees set up interest groups around biking or knitting, or is this just business? Either is valid, but be clear about what your expected use is,' IDC's Happe says.
  • How long a vendor has been in business and who their customers are: the closer the match to your company plans to use the technology, the better, analysts say. They also recommend creating an exit strategy in the event a vendor gets acquired or goes out of business.

SIDEBAR: Vendors galore

With a plan in place, it's time to sift through vendors. Bigger companies might work with a consultant or purchase market reports from companies like IDC or Forrester that spell out who's who among enterprise social network vendors. There's also plenty of free information about the vendors to on blog posts like this vendor list on Web Strategist, a blog Jeremiah Owyang started before he joined Forrester. Companies can also keep tabs on vendors at Groundswell, a social networking technology blog written by fellow Forrester consultant Charlene Li.