How can brand owners earn consumers’ respect on social networking sites?

FacebookThe growth of social networking is set to continue in 2008, ensuring advertisers’ continued and expanding interest in what is now a mainstream communications channel.

Online data company Hitwise predicts social networks will become the first choice for brands wanting highly targeted advertising this year. However, campaigns on sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo will need to be focused carefully in order to avoid alienating consumers who are likely to be unhappy about brands invading their spaces.

It is also a year when fast-growing sites must strike the balance between community and commerce. According to a survey conducted by Future Laboratory, for MySpace, 22% of the 18to 24-year-old respondents believe brands must work harder to earn their respect, while 11% said that social networks had made them expect more from brands.

User-generated content (UGC) is viewed as relatively free of traditional corporate content and advertising. If users perceive that corporate content is “intruding” on a network, evidence suggests they will leave rapidly. Social networks themselves, and companies wishing to benefit from them, must consider this when developing campaigns.

The issue of monetising social networks will clearly affect user loyalty in 2008, according to Jim Byford, head of innovation at Spannerworks. “The feeling in the expert community is that if a social network puts a commercial model in place that does not fit with the user base, there could be a real backlash.”

Critical issue
Facebook sparked the community-versus-commerce issue in November, when it launched Beacon, a solution which sends data from external websites to Facebook to allow targeted ads. However, Beacon invoked criticism when it emerged that data would be sent without user consent. In December, Facebook backed down and made Beacon an opt-in service.

“The Beacon issue was damaging for Facebook,” says Byford. “Beacon was a great opportunity. They could have made it opt-in from the start and that would have put them ahead. To Facebook’s credit, it has responded quickly. However, there is still the issue of data privacy – this could cause them big problems.”

It is not the first time Facebook has attracted the ire of users. In August, several high-profile brands pulled ads after they appeared on a British National Party group page.

A report by Experian and Hitwise predicts that social networks will overtake e-mail to become the leading channel for viral marketing. The must successful campaigns will have to stand out due to “the clutter in social networking sites”, and include elements of social networking and e-mail. Hitwise adds that because social networks offer an instant audience, consumers exercising opinions in this medium will increase in 2008.

Different strokes 
Byford says that although MySpace and Facebook compete on slightly different levels, due to MySpace’s content focus, it is difficult to see MySpace losing its lead due to its large user base. MySpace has generated a global subscriber base of 76 million, compared to Facebook’s 37 million.

MySpace is also focusing on targeted advertising. The company recently said it was dividing its users among more then 1,000 “groups”, organised by profile interest areas. MySpace terms this as “hyper-targeting”.

A resurgent Bebo, which scooped a Computing Which? award for best social network for its security efforts this month, may pose stiffer competition. Some are tipping Bebo to make a play to become the biggest social networking site after a solid 2007. However, Bebo only targets the 13 to 30 age bracket and has yet to make ground in the US.

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