Social Networks and Marketing Hubs

Social networks’ evolution as marketing vehicles is but one sign that most consumers really do get it. I say “most consumers” to make clear that I’m not talking about millennials, early adopters, or any other subset. I’m talking about mainstream consumers. All of them.

For mainstream consumers, social use of the Internet is part of daily life, even if they don’t always perceive it as such. MySpace has a bazillion members, give or take. One radio DJ remarked that kids in Amsterdam no longer refer to MySpace by name. Instead, they just say “slash” and the profile name. Everyone automatically knows that “slash Hans” refers to Hans’ MySpace profile.

Much more important, niche networks that in total cater to a much wider demographic are starting to emerge. As networking becomes commodified — MySpace’s biggest exposure is commodification — individual interests take center stage. The rise of the niche sites is what’s truly interesting for marketers.

From soccer’s Joga to Burning Man’s Black Rock City, there’s a community for everyone. I came across several community resources for urban spelunkers (40 years ago we called it “exploring the pipes”), including the de facto community center Infiltration. (I noticed this because urban spelunking was an interest I actively pursued as a kid and that now, as a dad, absolutely terrifies me.)

The more communities emerge online, the more marketers have a direct, visible channel into those communities.

The trick with communities, however, is you can’t just barge in and shout. You have to be invited in. Once in, you still can’t shout or be too pushy. You have to respect the community and understand why it exists, a perspective that can be challenging for marketers hammered for quarter-over-quarter results. But like anything else (e.g. the real world), once you’ve been accepted as a valued member, a niche community offers a great, direct channel to your consumers.

Done right, consumers benefit, too. Most people don’t pride themselves on making bad choices. Having a direct channel in combination with an understood, valued role in the community means consumers look to you as an expert, at least for the information you provide. I’m not suggesting they’ll believe everything you say, but they will at least use the facts and viewpoints you offer as the starting point for their own investigation into what will ultimately be a purchase decision.

Note that “purchase decision” includes the possibility of deciding not to purchase. So be it. This happened to me today, in fact. I went to the auto parts store to buy carburetor cleaner. I’ve always used the Gumout brand, so I asked for that. The gentleman assisting me suggested that I try Berryman’s B-12, adding that his customers swear by it. I thanked him for his advice and bought Gumout.

If my story ended there, it wouldn’t be much of a story. About an hour ago, though, I researched Berryman’s online. It has an amazing following! The next time I need a carb cleaner (about 60 days from now), I’ll try Berryman’s. That doesn’t mean I’ll switch, but I’ll at least try it. Ten years ago, I probably would have tried it immediately, based on the recommendation of the “expert” alone. Now, however, I consider it a generally bad move to buy anything unless I have direct prior experience or have researched it (even briefly) online and talked with friends who use similar products. Once, Berryman’s would’ve had a trial use on the basis of the counter recommendation alone. Today, it takes a village.

One by one, traditional consideration touch points are becoming awareness touch points instead. In the overall scheme, awareness touch points are being devalued as consumers pull back from the onslaught of “Open me first!” It’s the consideration touch points — the information you process when thinking about an actual purchase — that are so essential to the realization of a smart choice. The Internet and the niche social communities excel at enabling consideration touch points. With the emergence of the niche social sites and attendant development by savvy marketers of effective communications within those networks, these touch points will blossom.

Why does this matter? Ordinary consumers are continuing to integrate technology into their everyday lives. As they do, a natural reliance on a network of friends and other consumers develops. It applies to business-to-business, too, as professional communities arise. It’s only a matter of time before most purchases with any sort of decision analysis are made largely based on what is learned online, with the majority of this taking place in highly-focused, not mass, social networks. Savvy marketers are heading there now.

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