Bottom line, not buzz words

Between blogs, forums, podcasts, Facebook, MySpace, Second Life, Wikipedia, Del.icio.us, Twitter, Digg, Flickr and all the rest, the array of social media options now at marketers’ disposal can be intimidating. The challenge for marketers now, as ever, is to get past the hype and get onto what works.

Matt%20BrocklehurstBottom line, not buzz words

Between blogs, forums, podcasts, Facebook, MySpace, Second Life, Wikipedia, Del.icio.us, Twitter, Digg, Flickr and all the rest, the array of social media options now at marketers’ disposal can be intimidating. The challenge for marketers now, as ever, is to get past the hype and get onto what works.

Perhaps more daunting is the need to move past the traditional campaign mentality that is focused on relatively short-term goals and activities. Thanks to search engines and links – the true currency of the web – permanence rules social media. This calls for ongoing commitment and willingness to invest more than time and money. This calls for a purposeful investment of human capital in social media.

The intersection of technology and humanity, where consumers have themselves invested heavily in the communities they’ve built,is one where marketers are not often welcomed with open arms. But individuals bearing genuine value usually are (although, sadly, a link to your latest advert is not guaranteed to be considered valuableto consumers).

Often the most valuable thing a company can extend is also the most difficult for it to offer: the willingness to listen. Of course your brand is wonderful and worth consumers’ hard-earned cash. Telling them that in so many words, however, lacks both subtlety and efficacy.

For many online denizens, personalisation and collaboration on their own terms – and turf – are now par for the course. And, as the underlying technology becomes more invisible (and thus accessible) to “non-techie” consumers, the reach and impact of social media grow exponentially. So clinging to increasingly outdated ideas about target audiences becomes something of a folly: there are no audiences in many-to-many conversations, and participants in them don’t take kindly to notions of being targeted (or dominated, or captured, or any other hostile marketing-speak we have grown fond of).

To make the most of social media, it is imperative that companies be willing to reduce things to their most basic units: individuals participating in conversations. It may sound soft, but if getting past the hype matters – if results matter – then it’s pointless to pretend that a broadcast approach will work in this networked world.

The technology and buzzwords won’t be what gets those results. But expertise, enthusiasm, and the persistent delivery of genuine value certainly will. If you’ve got it, give it away. The value will come back to you, many times over, in the bottom line..

Matt Brocklehurst, head of marketing, Latitude Group, 55 New
Oxford Street, London, WC1A 1BS.
T 020 7952 8000 W www.latitudegroup.com

In the right social circles

ScrabbleSocial networks have been a huge success, but there are signs some users are suffering ‘Face-ache’. Niche sites may prove more fertile ground for ad messages. By Caroline Parry

The year 2007 will be remembered as the year that social networking went mainstream. No longer should the phrase conjure up images of youths spending their days and nights online making friends, as it now applies to one in four adults in the UK. Indeed, the UK has welcomed social networking with open arms. Christmas Day was the busiest day ever for social networks in the UK, according to internet data company Hitwise, and Facebook was the third most visited site over the Christmas period, pushing eBay into fourth place. And it wasn’t just the popularity of Facebook that drove the UK’s interest. Sites such as Sagazone, which is aimed at the over-50s, have opened up the phenomenon to silver surfers.

But that was last year, and there are already murmurs of Facebook fatigue – or “Face-ache” – as the burst of curiosity and enthusiasm that led many people to sign up to a social network starts to wear off. This can also be applied to MySpace and Bebo, which, though attracting younger users, have fallen behind as Facebook has flourished.

Social breakdown
Disillusionment with the big social networks is still in its early days – many people are still signing up – but it should act as a warning sign for the owners of the generic networks. While it may only be the early adopters moving on at the moment, new trends are starting to emerge that could be cause for concern.

“Facebook has jumped the shark,” says Jamie Riddell, director of innovation and co-founder of digital agency Cheeze. “For the early adopters it is no longer any good and that will start to apply to everyone. It is getting too messy on there.”

His sentiments are echoed by Anne-Fay Townsend, a researcher at innovation company What If? and blogger at bigshinything.com. She describes Facebook as a “cattle market”, adding/ “People are just not interested in many of the applications, mainly because they are so uninspired. Much of this stuff actually detracts from what Facebook really excels at – connecting people.”

Townsend and Riddell predict that as users tire of the generic © sites, they will start looking for niche networks and closed communities that appeal to specific interests. Townsend adds: “I also think people will start to hack off the bits they want and retreat into their own closed communities within Facebook.”

The move to niche or special interest networks is a trend that Hitwise/Experian also expects to see emerging this year. In its “The Impact of Social Networking in the UK” report, which was published in January, it says: “2008 will see the rise of Web 2.0 clique communities. These are not sites that appeal to the masses, like Facebook, MySpace or Bebo, and they will even go a step further than targeted communities like Sagazone.”

Industry observers expect that users will start to migrate to networks that best suit their needs – both professionally and personally. Jason Goodman, founder of digital agency Albion, believes networks such as LinkedIn, which offers a business social network, are improving and will continue to grow because “everyone knows why they are there”. According to Hitwise data, this is already starting to happen as LinkedIn has more than trebled its share of UK visits in 2007.

The Hospital, the private members club for people in the creative industries in London, has developed a closed community that aims to offer its users a better quality experience. David Marrinan-Hayes at The Hospital explains: “MySpace and Facebook take in the whole of the UK so they aren’t channels that are useful for developing professional relationships.” Users of hospitalclub.com do not have to be members of the club to join the site, but do have to be in the creative industries in London. Marrinan-Hayes says this is because social networking is good for connecting people, but he adds that 99% of interaction online has “no depth or longevity” so it cannot replace meeting face to face. He adds: “The site is for people to advance themselves.”

Clout in the community
Communities for people with specific interests and hobbies are also expected to proliferate as people search for networks that offer more than communications tools. The potential for networks that focus on amateur photography, for instance, has already been seen through Flickr, which allows people to upload and share photos. Albion’s Goodman also believes sites that focus on families will become popular as they can bridge the gap between relatives that are spread across the world. And, in the US, networks that help people trace their family tree, such as Geni, are popular and are expected to appeal to UK users too.

Importantly, this shift is expected to make it easier for brands to target users of social networks. The Hitwise/Experian report advises marketers to create a dedicated strategy that focuses solely on monitoring specialist community sites and introducing content for members to share without disrupting a community’s “natural order”.

There is no shortage of advertisers launching campaigns on social networks, using them as another media channel, but there remains limited examples of real success stories that have generated real results. Many industry observers still point to the launch of E4 youth drama Skins as the most successful campaign. It used MySpace to promote the show’s launch through exclusive content and blog updates in January 2007.

Although the big networking sites offer large audiences, these have yet to be monetised. As Townsend points out, they need to start “making serious money and fast”, but despite the level of data some networks hold on their users, campaigns are broad and often miss the mark. There is also a resistance to networks overtly using their knowledge. Facebook’s first attempt at using the data it has, through a system called Beacon which notifies you if one of your friends buys something online, was halted after users revolted with, among other protests, 46,000 users signing up to a group called “Facebook! Stop Invading my Privacy”.

But the rise of niche networks should offer advertisers a better starting point for targeting users, and more in-depth data in the long run. Cheeze’s Riddell believes that while Facebook and its counterparts will continue to offer critical mass, “smart marketers” will use niche communities as an additional channel.

There is growing confidence among agencies that clients will this year truly begin to understand that content is key. Riddell explains: “To buy your place at the table, you will need content. If there is a brand intrusion in social networks, it has be invited and relevant.” MySpace and Bebo are already heavily involved in content creation and innovations aimed at retaining existing users and drawing in new ones. Bebo has created original content with its online drama Kate Modern, and MySpace’s role as purveyor of new music is already confirmed. James Kirkham, co-founder of digital agency Holler believes the networks will begin to create more of their own content as well as working in partnership with rivals, such as TV companies and broadcasters, and advertisers.

Content is expected to become increasingly important as niche networks increase and sites collaborate with each other. The Impact of Social Networking report adds that content from niche sites will be “drip-fed into the mass appeal social network sites for wider consumption”. It adds that there is already “a significant amount of traffic” between the specialist and mass-market social networks, and this is set to increase.

How not to play the online game
The result will be more relevant, but branded applications on sites such as Facebook, which will offer users functionality and fun in order to encourage users to go to the site more. However, in January, makers of Scrabble, Hasbro, showed brands what not to do with regards to content, when it forced Facebook to remove the Scrabulous application on the grounds that it infringes its copyright. It is one of the top-ten applications on the site with over 40,000 users. Observers say Hasbro is missing a trick by failing to cash in on the success of the application while making it look the bad guy. T-Mobile, on the other hand, has launched its own application called Mate Morpher, which aims to raise awareness of the MyFaves scheme, which gives customers unlimited calls and texts to five friends, by allowing them to morph pictures of their mates.

Last year was about reaching critical mass, but 2008 will be about creating models that monetise social networking – both at a generic and specialised level. But brands will need to tread carefully when it comes to using data on social networkers, being honest and open with consumers about what they are doing on the sites.

Townsend explains: “There was a lovely explanation of social media in CSI recently. In discussing Twitter [a social network], one character asked why people didn’t value privacy anymore … another countered that, in the connected world, what people actually value is openness. And despite recent debates about privacy issues, a recent Pew Internet survey shows that US adults are still fairly blasé about the amount of information available about them online. Brands should take note.” 

Caroline Parry is news editor at Marketing Week

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