The social network has gone corporate. Almost a decade after Mark Zuckerberg started thefacebook in his Harvard dorm, virtually all major businesses (and plenty of small companies) are using social tools to sell goods and services, hire and manage employees, and handle customer complaints. Marketing executives polled in February by the CMO Survey say they expect in five years to spend, on average, 21.6% of their marketing budgets on social media outlets, up from an average of 8.4% today. Fortune surveyed the business community and talked to the leading digital platforms to find best-in-class users of social media. The common thread? The four companies (and one research lab) aren't using social tools in place of customer service, marketing, hiring, and collaboration. They're using social media to make their existing practices better.
Best in customer service
JetBlue Stranded customers love to vent on Twitter and Facebook. JetBlue actually responds.
These days complaints from stranded passengers can go viral. But even when there's a heavy volume of messages, JetBlue Airways (jblu) responds in real time. "Every other airline is slower to respond in comparison to JetBlue," says Dave Kerpen, chairman of New York-based marketing firm Likeable Media. The airline has had a dedicated social media support team since 2010. Its 26 members have the same training and ability to rebook flights as their call-center counterparts. The first place the airline turns when it has news of airport closures and weather delays is its blog. When unexpected events force mass rebookings, JetBlue prefers a good old-fashioned phone conversation with stranded customers, but in times of need, the social team can also assist customers -- booking and simultaneously corresponding with the passenger via Twitter or Facebook messages. --Iris Mansour
Best in marketing
American Express A longtime social media stalwart continues to push the envelope in digital marketing.
American Express's (axp) marketing team has been winning plaudits for its use of social networks since it took to Facebook to launch Small Business Saturday (a made-up holiday encouraging consumers to shop with local merchants) in 2010. The campaign went viral and helped connect buyers and sellers. The financial services company continues to take advantage of such tools to promote its products. In 2011 it developed a social substitute for coupons: AmEx customers who link their cards to their Twitter, Foursquare, and Facebook accounts can get special discounts at participating stores. More recently #PassionProjects lets a community of creatives post and tweet about their passions for a chance at Kickstarter-style fundraising. AmEx gets extra points for its leaders' commitment to social media. (It helps that CEO Ken Chenault is friends with Facebook operating chief Sheryl Sandberg.) --I.M.
Best in small business
First Round Capital To compete with bigger venture firms, First Round built a platform for its portfolio companies.
Philadelphia-based venture firm First Round Capital is a pretty small outfit: It has seven investment professionals and 24 other employees in various support roles. But when it comes to deploying social-networking tools, First Round punches above its weight. Over the past two years the firm, which specializes in early-stage bets, has built a private digital network for its portfolio companies -- think Yelp meets Quora with a dash of LinkedIn -- that has become the go-to resource for time-starved entrepreneurs seeking advice on everything from debt funding to figuring out how much to pay a senior software engineer. The tool isn't just for founders; the private site is also a forum for the marketers, engineers, and salespeople who work for First Round-backed companies. The social platform helps differentiate First Round from its rivals. It also gives the financiers direct insight into the power of social software. --Jessi Hempel
Best in collaboration
Facebook The pioneering company uses social networking (natch) to make employees more efficient.
You'd expect employees of Facebook (fb) to be comfortable using social networking as a way to share ideas; what's noteworthy is how ingrained social tools are in the company's inner workings. It uses Facebook Groups -- yes, the same tool the public can use -- but staff use an employee-only or closed version. Collaboration via Groups has been routine at Facebook for years. Managers use the platform to promote projects for which they hope to generate internal buzz. (At Facebook, buzz can attract top talent to a project.) Employees beta-test products, pose questions, and dole out critiques and "likes." Such immediate feedback lets teams revise and improve their work on the spot, saving wasted effort. Now Facebook is giving partners a taste of its hypersocial working style. Earlier this year it joined with the website Weather Underground to offer forecasting details inside Facebook Events listings. The companies' primary means of collaboration? Facebook Groups. --Brandon Southward
Best in hiring
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory The lab's recruiter tracked down an almost-impossible-to-find hire by following his posts.
In March 2011 the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a Battelle-operated unit of the Department of Energy, was looking to hire as a consultant a nuclear engineer who spoke fluent Japanese, was a U.S. citizen, and had appropriate security clearance to help the lab, in partnership with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, respond to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Recruiting director Rob Dromgoole turned to professional networking site LinkedIn (lnkd), which offered him a shortlist of candidates, but it was hard to tell who might be a good fit. Then he noticed that one prospect, University of Idaho professor Akira Tokuhiro, had created a LinkedIn Group to discuss the disaster. Dromgoole called him up, and within a day they were discussing a position. Dromgoole says LinkedIn is good for screening, but the best social sites for finding scientists are the forums and groups they visit to discuss their work with peers. --J.H.