You've all followed the stupendous success of the social networking sites. The latest traffic figures show the power and momentum of this new platform. According to comScore's February numbers, MySpace.com was the second-most trafficked site on the Web after Yahoo, based on page views, and Facebook was seventh. Social networks are a powerful force because of their audience reach and, more importantly, their high level of user engagement. MySpace and Facebook together have a third of the daily visitors Yahoo has but nearly as many page views in aggregate. Users spend hundreds of minutes each month on social networking sites, totaling over 30 billion page views in February, according to comScore.
These usage patterns are astounding, considering Yahoo is the granddaddy of the Web and offers a vast, diverse array of rich content while MySpace and Facebook are mere infants. Clearly, the social networks are giving the major portals a run for their money. Since last May, MySpace's daily unique-visitor audience grew 140 percent, while Google grew 16 percent and Yahoo was essentially flat.
If you haven't yet approached social networking, now is the time to formulate your strategy.
Many online marketers are already there. In addition to traditional banner ads on MySpace, you'll find DJ Ditty, a profile Dell posted to market its music player. You can download posters of DJ Ditty, watch him play air guitar, join 9,000 other people who consider him a friend, and post your comments.
You might also find Tila Tequila, a self-made MySpace celebrity enjoying her 15 minutes of fame. Over 800,000 people consider her a friend and contribute to the 30 million page views she's gotten in her 30-month history. She's been on a magazine cover, featured in "AdWeek," interviewed on MSNBC, and blogged about on the Huffington Post. Now she's in my ClickZ column. If you search Google for "Tila Tequila," you get about 1.6 million results.
We've been working with the top social networking sites to develop innovative promotions for our clients. This has helped us form a point of view about marketing in -- and to -- these communities. John Manoogian III (one of our resident social networking experts) and I worked up this list of best practices for marketers interested in social networking:
Know your brand. Take stock before you jump in. Social networks are built by users who post profiles, connect with one another, and communicate actively. Much of their communication is visible to all on their profiles and in their posted comments. Yet most marketers are accustomed to a one-way dialogue in which they broadcast their brand message to a mass audience. Feedback is rare and pretty well contained. Social networks are very different. If you present your brand in an engaging way (which is the objective), you'll get plenty of feedback, available for any visitor to see.
Imagine the call you'd get if your CMO approved your campaign only to see your latest product become a toxic commodity as people flamed it with abandon: "Janice, you tested this product in focus groups before launch. You said people were largely positive and that we'd get the same reaction on this site. So why are people writing all these hateful comments? How do we stop this? Can we get those comments taken down?"
To get a sense of what people can write, even within the context of a consumer-generated commercial, check out what some environmentally minded consumers created for GM's new Chevy Tahoe. (Thanks to Pete Blackshaw for alerting me to this one.) It takes a confident brand to engage in a visible, direct dialogue with community members. If you aren't confident enough to handle the heat, reevaluate your product and marketing approach.
Get ready for a wild ride. When you jump into a social network, you jump into a community in which individuals produce the content and are largely uncensored. If your company's uncomfortable presenting its brand adjacent to questionable content, be very selective about the communities you choose.
Respect the community. It's a club and you don't really belong. Most social networks aren't about advertising or commerce per se. That said, there are a million bands on MySpace. Smart musicians are launching albums and careers to an audience of 67 million. As an advertiser you're a guest in the club. Understand the environment and respect the unwritten rules: don't intrude on conversations or connections in a way that irritates members; don't divert users from the network to other sites; and don't disguise yourself in a dishonest way. If someone flames your product or service on a board, think carefully before you post a rebuttal, explanation, or even an apology. Responding often inflames the debate. Instead, take the comments as an input for planning product improvements and new campaigns.
MySpace even allows this to happen within its own network. Check out Rupert Murdoch's "profile." As the new owner of MySpace, Fox wouldn't actively promote this. But it lets it exist unedited in the true, uncontrollable spirit of social networking.
Don't advertise. Connect and engage instead. Sure, you'll see banner ads on social networking sites, but that's not a particularly powerful way to leverage the network's strength. You must construct a strategy in which you offer something of unique value to the community so you can engage in a dialogue or an experience. That's the best way to showcase your brand. What's this mean? Give to get. Give the community something it can't get anywhere else. In return, you get a level of engagement you can't find in most media.
If you chose Facebook as the network you want to develop, understand the needs of graduating seniors and offer them something special they can't get elsewhere, such as a special deal on a car, a new type of credit card, a unique school loan debt consolidation program, tickets to a private concert with their favorite band, or a road trip to their favorite summer beach destination.
The network effect is real... and fast. Use it, or get out of its way. Social networks are based on connections between people. People collect friends like votes in a popularity contest. The more friends you have, the more networked you are and the more valuable you are as a property. Even the Rupert Murdoch parody profile has over 1,200 friends. In most networks, you are what you say about yourself, who you know, and what you consume. How do you weave your brand into the fabric of the community? Make friends and reward your supporters.
Let's say you market a product that already has a positive, vocal following in a given network (e.g., a TV series, an automobile, a game player, etc.). One way to reward supporters is to give them things, such as exclusive videos, images, posters, ring tones, or music downloads, they can post on their profile and share with their friends. You make new friends through introductions. This harnesses the power of the network.
The Internet was created to connect people and ideas through an unbreakable network. Many people lost sight of this basic premise until social networks exploded onto the scene two years ago. This phenomenon will eventually turn marketing on its head. Companies, brands, and products will become open source, owned in essence by the community. Marketers won't simply broadcast an advertisement to launch their product; they'll introduce their offerings to a community, make adjustments along the way, build a base of supporters, and through them build a powerful brand.
Think this is just hyperbolic conjecture? Remember, two mega social networks are already in the top 10 most-visited properties on the Web today. If their growth continues, they could overtake the largest property on the Web in a relatively short time. Take note. The social networking strategy is not optional. It's imperative.
Mark Kingdon joined Organic as CEO in 2001 and has led the company to its current position as a leading digital marketing agency. Prior to Organic, Mark worked for Idealab and provided strategic guidance to emerging companies. Earlier, he was a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he led the America's retail and distribution industry practice and managed the PWC and Lybrand merger and was a leader in the e-business practice globally. Mark is a member of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences and serves as a Webby judge. He's also a regular contributor to Three Minds, Organic's blog. Mark received his MBA from the Wharton School of Business and a BA in Economics from UCLA.