Social Networks and Dynamic User Profiles

Online, no one knows you’re a dog. Or so it used to be. Now, it seems anyone can determine exactly who you really are, dog or otherwise. Using a combination of social network profiles, friends’ lists, and Google, someone can pretty quickly peg you.

This, of course, presumes a person’s social profile is accurate. It’s often not. What does this means for marketers wanting to do business in social networks?

It matters because marketers recognize the potential in the large communities forming around social spaces like MySpace.com, Match.com, Facebook, and others. New networks seem to pop up daily: Red Hat launched its Mugshot network just last week. Yet for all this activity, a lot of social network inventory remains undersold, and publishers’ networks are increasingly taking a second look at the large flows of traffic coming off massive communities like MySpace. According to Search Engine Journal, Yahoo has actually begun terminating publisher accounts when heavy social network traffic is suspected to protect the value of its ad network for those marketers who pay for the clicks associated with this traffic.

It seems two fundamental issues are at the root of the undersold, undervalued inventory associated with social networks:

  • When it comes to shopping, the prevailing attitude of community members may be more like my mom when she’s on a European vacation: she looks at everything in store windows for the simple pleasure of looking. She’s not actually interested in buying at that moment. It’s a social thing for her and her friends. Compare this with my mom at Costco: she’s task-oriented, and the task is buying what she needs. A subtle shift in motivation, such as from buyer to browser as the context shifts from online shopping to online socializing, can wreak havoc on a marketer’s CPC (define) budget when 70 million browsers are involved.

  • Many of these shoppers aren’t necessarily who they say they are. That’s a fact of life when it comes to online personas, as noted above. That means a lot contextual information used to establish a potential offer is wrong. As a result, the person seeing the ad may be tangentially interested and may even click. But it’s a long-shot that an actual purchase will occur.

Of course, part of the unsold inventory is simply inertia: the fear of trying anything new that may place the brand in a less-controlled context. Many marketers still believe uncontrolled conversations aren’t already taking place (but that’s a different column).

Massive traffic aside, the first issue is one marketers have always dealt with: how do you convert a browser to a buyer? That’s hardly unique to social marketing. The second issue is, however. Lots of MySpace users maintain multiple profiles, for example. Of about 70 million MySpace accounts, only about 50 million are estimated to be unique people. That means the remaining are duplicate accounts or there’s one guy in Ohio with 20 million accounts. The former seems more plausible, so we must ask why and what do we do about it?

Maybe the answer lies in a better profiling system, one that can change depending on what people feel like right now. I’ve been working with a new online service called Mikons. On it, the user can create a visual tag that describes who she is. Because the tag is made up of icon-like building blocks, the tag itself can change depending on mood, time of day, day of week, and so on.

This means users don’t need multiple accounts to describe complex, dynamic personalities. The first few Mikons appeared in MySpace a couple weeks ago. This is similar to what Jyve is doing with Skype status: you can add a Jyve-powered Skype card to your social profile (in social networks that allow you to post direct contact information). As your online status changes, Jyve automatically, dynamically updates the contact options visitors see on your profile page. People know when you want to be contacted and when you don’t.

As services like this catch on, savvy marketers could begin to sort out who people really are and what they’re in the mood for at that moment by looking at the current interest indicators. Sure beats trying to sift through multiple personas to sort out which (if any) applies at a specific moment. This type of dynamic persona actually addresses both the issues noted earlier. First, giving a user the ability to express a dynamic persona reduces the need for multiple accounts. Second, by making it more evident what mood a user is in, a marketer could reliably clue in and advance an offer that’s got a higher likelihood of being accepted and leave that same consumer alone when likelihood is low. Taken together, those have to help marketers. My bet is consumers would appreciate the relief.

In the end, social networks are a growing opportunity for marketers interested in applying new techniques to reach consumers. They’re also places where marketers can get to know individual users; not in a personal sense, of course (they don’t have the granular data for this) but in the sense that clues to interests that exist within or are associated with a profile can be tapped when marketing to the profile’s owner.

So what if I’m a dog? Considering online pet product sales, dogs account for a big chunk of consumer spending. It’s knowing the difference between when a dog’s searching for a new bone and when he’s snoozing on the front porch that’s so important.

As social networks get better at signaling buyer intention, inventory use and valuations will no doubt rise.

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