Marketers targeting the inner circle of your social network

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Brands wishing to target friends on social networks are taking a less-is-more approach. But privacy remains a major concern.

In social network terms, bigger is not necessarily better. The early days of social networking were dominated by the rush to have the most friends or the most followers. People invited and accepted everyone into their social network, from family and school friends to work colleagues and drinking partners, forgetting that the only time you would ever bring all these disparate people together in one place offline would be at your wedding, with all the social tension and potential for fisticuffs that involves.

Meanwhile, in the corporate world, experts sprang up overnight to explain the best way for brands to grow their friend lists. Social networks, it seemed, were a broadcast medium, and the person (or brand) with the highest number of friends won.

That early rush for friends died down pretty quickly, but it’s taken a lot longer for the real value of social networks to be seen by advertisers, and that value is only tangentially related to big numbers.

Brands wishing to target friends on social networks are taking a less-is-more approach. But privacy remains a major concern

The first step came when Facebook opened up its application programming interface (API) key, allowing agencies to apply traditional DM approaches to advertising on the network. The result was the ability to market to niche audiences at scale. The real value turned out, not unexpectedly, to be that the big numbers of Facebook users contained a myriad of small segments that could be identified and targeted.

The second stage was the realisation by technology companies that not all the relationships people have in social media are equal. Within the hundreds of friends you might have on Facebook, there are probably no more than 15 or 20 who you communicate with regularly. Surely, the thinking goes, there must be more value in these relationships than there is in the far greater number of weaker ties.

One of the earliest companies to incorporate this idea was ad network Radium One, which uses these small networks around people as a way of targeting advertising.

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The people in your social network who you share content with are those who you will have the most in common. So if you buy something online, for example, the people who you share stuff with can also be targeted with advertising for the same item on the basis that they are likely to be interested in it

It’s based on sharing. Radium One assumes the people in your social network who you share content with are those who you will have the most in common with. So if you buy something online, for example, the people who you share stuff with can also be targeted with advertising for the same item on the basis that they are likely to be interested in it.

But what’s really pushed this idea of small, controlled networks rather than big, amorphous ones into the headlines is Google+. The search giant’s recently launched social network has a number of features that are already interesting advertisers, including Circles, which allows users to place their various friends and acquaintances into clusters. A big part of the point of Circles is privacy for users, getting away from the Facebook problem of everyone in your network being able to see everything you share, with potentially disastrous consequences.

If this idea appeals to users as much as estimates of Google+ uptake figures suggest it does, it’s going to create some very powerful opportunities for advertisers, since it also means that by allowing users to classify their relationships, it removes some of the assumptions used in other social targeting technologies.

And those growth estimates are astounding. Google+ was launched as an invitation-only field trial at the end of June, and within three weeks comScore was estimating that it had attracted 20 million users.

At the Cambridge Digital Marketing Conference this month, social media expert Mark Ross-Innes of Softwerx said he thought it was now a matter of when Google+ would overtake Facebook, rather than if. And in the developing social media arms race, the successful features of one network are likely to be replicated in others.

Privacy remains the elephant in the room. Last autumn, research by TNS found that while 64% of people wanted advertising online to be more relevant to them, 65% felt the technologies for delivering such relevance were an intrusion into their privacy. And while the number of people with privacy concerns may be dropping, it’s only dropping very slowly.

I see two possible explanations for this. One is that, despite the great efforts of the IAB, the industry is still not getting a convincing message across that explains that targeting is anonymous, and that people can opt out of it if they wish. The widespread feeling of people finding it creepy that ads were following them around after the sudden jump in the use of search retargeting last December shows how delicate the privacy balance is.

The other, possibly complementary, explanation is that we have yet to show people any real value for what they see as an intrusion into their privacy. They hear about the techniques, but they haven’t seen the benefits. Small network approaches look likely to offer advertisers a powerful targeting tool, but at the risk of seeming to intrude further into people’s private social space. Those tools will have to be used with care.

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