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Should Your Business Use Instant Messaging?

Find out why small businesses are increasingly using instant messaging--and how you can avoid the pitfalls.
November 14, 2005

Once viewed primarily as a secret language used by teenagers, instant messaging (IM) is maturing into a viable communications tool for small businesses. For example, many IM services are now offering video conferencing and Voice Over IP (VoIP), in addition to messaging.

IM is gaining momentum in the workplace. According to The Second Annual Instant Messaging Trends Study, over 27 percent of IM users now communicate via instant messaging at work--a 71 percent increase over 2003.

IM is catching on because it offers many benefits for small businesses. But there are drawbacks--and some outright risks--to consider as well. Here's a look at IM's pros and cons, along with an at-a-glance view of IM services that small businesses should consider.

The Benefits

Presence awareness, a common IM feature, gives you a quick view of who among your chosen correspondents is logged onto the IM service at any given time. (On AOL's Instant Messenger service, presence awareness is called "Buddy List.") You can also see what your correspondents' current status is, as well as let others know yours. For instance, before going to lunch you might choose an "Away From My Desk" option, which indicates to your IM correspondents that you're logged on but not immediately available.

In business, presence awareness is often used as a quick way to find the right person to handle an urgent matter. Example: A customer calls you with an important accounting question you can't answer, so you check to see who in the accounting department is active on the company's IM service. Then, you send an instant message to an appropriate person who's logged on to relay your customer's question. Within seconds, that person responds with the answer. You didn't waste time trying to track down someone for an answer--and most importantly, you served your customer's need right away.

The Options
After weighing the pros and cons, you may want to give IM a try. Among the IM services small businesses might consider are:

Is IM Right for You?
Used properly, IM can be an extremely useful addition to your company's communications tools. IM reduces time and effort and helps your business react quickly to new challenges, competition and customer requests.

Before signing up for an IM service, however, ensure that you've got the necessary network and computer security in place. At a minimum, your network should have end-to-end security, firewall protection and encryption for all IM communications. You might also consider a virtual private network (VPN), which provides additional network security protection for mobile and remote employees, For more about basic network security, see "Is Your Biz Safe From Internet Security Threats?."

Also, compile a list of IM do's and don'ts for employees to follow. Keep an archive of IM messages, for legal reasons, and back it up regularly. To help you develop an IM policy for your business, read "Creating an Employee IM Policy."

The Downsides