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Skype is getting down to business. Small business, that is.
The widely used service owned by Microsoft on Thursday rolled out Skype in the Workspace, a free tool for small businesses to connect and collaborate with potential customers, partners, consultants and other external parties online.
You won't hear Skype call the service a social network, per se, but it does bear some of the familiar trappings of social sites. It's all about making connections and developing relationships online, in large part by tapping into the 280 million people that use Skype's online videoconferencing, calling, chat, text messaging, and other services. Like LinkedIn, Skype in the Workspace is for professionals and their business-specific uses -- rather than their family photos and reactions to Tuesday's presidential election.
"Most of the stories you probably hear in the media [about Skype] are more personal stories, like people talking to their grandma or there's a new baby in the family," said Ural Cebeci, Skype's head of SMB marketing, in an interview. "At the same time, there are millions of businesses that use Skype to run their businesses."
Let's get up to speed. Here are three basic facts about Skype in the Workspace that small and mid-size business (SMB) professionals need to know.
1. You've Got Another Marketing Channel.
Skype is a massive platform. Its 280 million users made more than 120 billion minutes of calls in the third quarter of 2012 alone. Part of Skype in the Workspace's raison d'etre is to help turn at least part of that activity hive into an audience.
[ Read Microsoft Folds Windows Live Messenger Into Skype. ]
"It's an extension of what [SMBs] do on Skype already," Cebeci said. "What this enables you to do is tap into that Skype network and make that instant connection."
That starts with a Skype in the Workspace profile, which is a short, clean page of basic information about your business, not unlike a LinkedIn company page or a Google+ for Business page. The page includes your name, a company name, or both; logo or other image; email and Web addresses; location; and Twitter handle.
Profiles are the face of the business on Skype in the Workspace. They also can be made public so that they're found in search results on Google, Bing and elsewhere. The opportunities -- more on those below in number two -- and other content a business creates also will be included in Web search results.
2. The Opportunities Are Knocking.
The core feature of Skype in the Workspace is the "opportunity." Businesses create them; other users respond to opportunities that interest them. When you create an opportunity, it appears under a standard intro of "[Your name] wants to meet about ..." The business then enters a title, a suggested meeting duration such as 30 minutes, and a description of the proposed opportunity. Opportunities also can include a photo or short video.
The closed beta, which included 500 SMBs, listed this 15-minute opportunity, for example: "Could you use Pinterest to market your business? Free question and answer session." Other users interested in the opportunity would click "Connect." This generates a customizable message and connection request. Once sent, both users are connected on Skype and can schedule a meeting at their discretion. Businesses that create opportunities can track the number of times they're viewed, the number of users who have expressed interest, and the number of users who have marked the opportunity as a favorite.
Opportunities are ultimately about creating "quick, easy, casual and natural meetings," Cebeci said. The possibilities are vast; according to Cebeci, Skype won't be particularly heavy-handed in regulating the type or tone of legitimate opportunities that businesses decide to list. A salesperson or marketer might drool over how opportunities could be used to generate and qualify leads. Partnership development, recruiting, product testing and a host of other business tasks come to mind, too.
Cebeci noted, too, that SMBs can tap into expertise and consulting services -- sometimes for free -- by pursuing opportunities listed by other firms. So a small retailer stumped by a technology problem or a accounting issue, for example, could seek answers and advice from a fellow Skype in the Workspace user.