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NOVEMBER 2009        RSSPrint PrintEller College on Facebook FacebookPrint Twitter     

Research Report
MIS Professors Explore Online Friendships between Firms and Customers

Susan Brown
Associate professor of
MIS Susan Brown.

Online social networks are playing an increasing role in customer relationship management. Associate professor in MIS Susan Brown and visiting academic Sabine Matook from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, are collaborating on a research project about individuals’ willingness to engage in commercial friendships in online social networks.

“Suppose your doctor, your insurance broker, or your travel agent becomes your friend on Facebook,” Matook says. “Through that role, they can offer you faster and more convenient services, tailored to your specific preferences.  This can provide you with improved customer service and might make you a loyal customer.”

Typically, Facebook friends have a personal rather than commercial friendship. Matook and Brown’s study builds on relationship theory and friendship research to investigate what motivates an online social network user to add (or decline to add) a service provider to their personal friendship network. The benefits for the company are clear: it’s a way to enlarge the customer base and increase customer satisfaction. “Research has shown that it’s more expensive to attract new customers than to maintain current ones,” Matook points out.

Less clear are the benefits that individuals derive from making their personal information and contacts available. “For the user, online social networks can be a convenient communication channel,” Matook explains. “Suppose you’ve had a flight change, or an appointment needs to be rescheduled, you can directly talk to your agent through the Facebook interface.  Firms can use this social media technology to bridge distance and time, at a low cost to both parties.”

Facebook intro
Facebook is a social utility that connects people.
But will it work for businesses, too?

Establishing commercial friendships through online social networks seems best suited to small and medium-sized companies, where there is a higher frequency of direct, person-to-person contact between employees and the customer.  “In this type of firm, there’s a lot of motivation for employees to care about customer relationships,” Matook says. “Of course the employees can use the network contact to sell products or services, but it’s also a way to give advice or support to customers.”

Matook and Brown have already collected preliminary pilot test data for their project and are preparing to survey active Facebook users to understand the benefits and concerns associated with commercial friendships and to determine the motivation for users to add a provider as a friend.

In August 2009, they presented these preliminary findings as part of the Eller Department of MIS Speaker Series.

Learn more about future speaker series offered through the top-ranked MIS department, or view more information about the International Conference on Information Systems 2009, hosted by the Eller College Department of MIS in Phoenix December 15-18. Brown is serving as a doctoral consortium faculty mentor during the conference, which is co-chaired by University of Arizona Regents Professor Jay Nunamaker.

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