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Social Network Marketing: Know What You're Getting Into

  |  September 18, 2006   |  Comments

Delving into social network marketing in isn't something to be taken lightly.

A scenario to consider:

You're throwing a party. All your friends are there. You're kicking back, gossiping, shooting the breeze, laughing, joking, having a good time. You're a close-knit bunch who spend a lot of time together and you're used to being able to say and do pretty much whatever you want because you're in the company of friends who know intimate details of each other's lives.

Then, it all begins to be horribly wrong.

First Helga walks in. "Don't be sucking!" she hollers in her thick German accent. "I love leather!" Your guests begin to move slowly backwards across the room, unsure what to do about the white-clad dominatrix who's invaded the party.

But Helga's not alone. She's brought along the incredibly creepy Burger King () with her. He's been chillin' with Square, who tails the King into the room and proceeds to drop Wendy's wrappers on the carpet. You think thing's have gotten as bad as they can get, but then you look outside the door and see that the entire US Airforce is out there.

It's going to be a bad night.

Commercial profiles in social networking sites have been getting a fair amount of press lately, and marketers have begun to jump on the bandwagon, creating MySpace pages for corporate mascots, TV characters, even companies themselves. And while it might seem a good idea to get your brand on one of the Net's hottest sites, the backlash is beginning. According to several reports MySpace users are starting to get a little ticked off about brands invading their online party.

And for good reason. While Helga's debut was kind of cute, the avalanche of companies jumping into MySpace (and other social networking sites) can have a darker side if not created with care and respect for the people who populate MySpace. Ticking off users who have tried to be a character's "friend" is just one aspect of the problem when profiles aren't carefully maintained, but the larger issue is the one where users feel invaded, used, and, well...marketed to. That isn't good for anyone's brand image.

Delving into social network marketing in isn't something to be taken lightly. Social networkers have different expectations of interaction and privacy than do casual Web surfers. Facebook recently found this out the hard way when they instituted a "News Feeds" feature that showed everyone in a network what everyone else in the network was doing. All of a sudden, all those actions that were once considered private-- who talked to whom, who added whom to their network-- became public information, sparking a huge outcry. In fact, over 600,000 Facebook users banded together to protest Facebook's "privacy trainwreck." The company was quickly forced to do some backpedaling.

Even social sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr aren't immune from backlash once users discover they've been tricked. Lonelygirl15 became an overnight YouTube celebrity when her Webcamed confessions hit the network. Intrigued by her video plight, users hit the 'Nets to find out more about her. It was revealed fairly quickly she was connected to the Creative Artists Agency and was doing the faux-videoblog as a publicity stunt. The fallout hasn't been pretty.

The lesson in all this is simple: respect the people you're marketing to. Social networks are communities, and communities have certain expectations about their members' behavior, not the least of which is that those members actually exist and aren't trying to make a buck off their friendships. Social networkers, especially those in the juicy 18-26 year old demographic, are pretty savvy and not easily fooled. They also seem to have a limited tolerance for postmodern, ironic, "yeah, we're all in on the joke" attempts at marketing, and tire quickly of the joke once the bandwagon gets crowded. The net result of all these issues is pretty easy to do far more harm than good to your brand if you run roughshod over the social networkers simply because the trend's hot right now.

Know what you're getting into before you jump in.

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Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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