Social Networking Bill May not Have Much Impact on Marketers

The thought of not being able to visit MySpace or Facebook at school may strike fear into the hearts of many a student. A bill amending the Communications Act of 1934, which was passed by the House yesterday, could put that nightmare scenario on the books. Though usage of such sites by marketers to reach teens is proliferating, not everyone believes it will have much of an impact on online marketing if it is passed into law.

The Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), H. R. 5319, was introduced in an attempt to protect school kids from online sexual predators as well as obscene and pornographic imagery. According to the bill, sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Michael Fitzpatrick, schools and libraries receiving federal funding would be required to bar minors from visiting commercial social networking sites and chat rooms, unless they were under adult supervision. Adults would be able to access such sites in those settings, however.

According to the language in the bill, introduced in May, “The Congress finds that…sexual predators can use these chat rooms and Web sites to locate, learn about, befriend, and eventually prey on children….[I]t is becoming more and more difficult to monitor and protect minors from those with devious intentions, particularly when children are away from parental supervision.”

“Marketers are still going to be using social networks,” contended eMarketer Senior Analyst Debra Aho Williamson, who added that social networking site users are “all getting much older than they even were a year ago.”

According to comScore Media Metrix, MySpace’s 12 to 17 year-old user category declined from 22 percent last year to 17 percent this year. However, comScore numbers also show Facebook users below age 18 have risen from 11.6 percent in 2005 to 14.5 percent this year. The majority of Facebook users, 48.3 percent, are aged 18-34.

Emarketer’s “Social Network Marketing” report, written by Williamson, predicts U.S. online social network ad spending to rise from $280 million this year to 1.86 billion in 2010.

DOPA “may decrease the consumption of these sites while teens aren’t at home, but given the massive amount of pageviews being generated, I doubt the decrease in reach is going to deter many marketers,” commented Amy Gibby, president of the eCrush Network of teen-targeted social networking sites. Gibby said the network experiences most traffic to its sites after school hours.

The Act goes on to state that criteria for defining the terms “social networking Web site” and “chat room” will be defined within 120 days of enactment. The decision makers will consider whether a site is offered by a commercial entity, allows users to create profiles featuring detailed personal information, permits creation and sharing of online journals, allows communication among users and “elicits highly-personalized information from users.”

The Act would also require the Federal Trade Commission to create consumer alerts and a Web site to warn against the potential dangers of minors accessing the Internet, social networking sites and chat rooms.

DOPA could have an unintended negative effect on advocacy groups hoping to educate young people, suggested Alan Andreasen, professor of marketing at Georgetown University and executive director of The Social Marketing Institute, an organization that connects people using social marketing techniques for advocacy and commercial campaigns. Attempts by the American Legacy Foundation’s Truth campaign to communicate its anti-smoking message, for instance, could be hampered, along with other drug or alcohol education efforts. “What [those campaigns] want to do is to get teens talking to each other,” explained Andreasen, and DOPA “would not be helpful to many of those programs.”

In the long run, noted eMarketer’s Williamson, marketers don’t want to be on sites where exploitative behavior can occur. “What marketer wants to be associated with a site that continues to be the focus of Dateline [NBC] exposés?” she quipped.

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