Social media: Mission not impossible in virtual world

Brands have a greater chance of achieving better results on social media if they target the most active users.

Pinterest met with UK bloggers through Pin It Forward initiative

Brands are struggling to engage a significant proportion of consumers on social media because many people are relatively inactive on the sites, new research suggests. As many as 41 per cent of people are either passive observers or hardly use social websites.

The SocialLife study by market research group Harris Interactive identifies six categories of social media users based on their demographics, attitudes and social media usage. This includes 20 per cent of people who are labelled ‘social observers’ – those who watch what is happening on social media without posting or actively engaging with content.

Lee Langford, research director at Harris Interactive, explains that this segmentation is designed to provide a more nuanced view of social media usage than existing perceptions.

“If you read the press, you’d be forgiven for thinking that everybody is on social media all the time,” he says. “We had a suspicion that they’re probably not and we wanted to quantify that.”

According to the research, 21 per cent of social media users fall into the least active segment – labelled ‘barely social’ – which accounts for only 4 per cent of all social media activity and 1 per cent of all spend via social networks. This segment is described as the oldest in terms of demographics, with a high percentage of retired people and an average of 2.1 accounts per person.

One of the most common attitudes among people in this segment is that they ‘have signed up [to social networks] but don’t really know how to use them’. The study shows that only 20 per cent of this group have accessed social media via a mobile phone and that the majority prefer to ask for advice face-to-face, rather than seek social media recommendations.

At the other end of the scale, 7 per cent of social media users are labelled ‘social pros’; the most active segment. Despite the small size of this group, it accounts for 31 per cent of all activity on social media and 24 per cent of all spend. These people have an average of 6.1 social media accounts each, more than 2,500 contacts across all sites and the majority use their phones to access social media.

These users are much younger, with 36 per cent of the segment in the 16 to 24 age group. The most common attitudes in this segment include that they ‘rely on social media to help make purchase decisions’ and ‘continue to use [social media] when on holiday’.

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Langford argues that by identifying social media users in this level of detail, brands can better target their campaigns at different people. “A group like the ‘social observers’ is going to notice [a campaign] but they’re not going to do anything about it,” he says. “However, the more active groups are likely to act on [a campaign], retweet it or recommend it and be influential as well.”

Alex Packham, social media manager at Now TV, Sky’s online streaming service, agrees that it is possible to create certain categories of social media users. He says that his team has developed some “social personas” for its target audience based on their demographics, interests and social media habits.

“Because film is one of the most talked about things on social media, you could assume that Now TV movie fans are going to be heavy social media users,” he says. “We’re a ‘dip in and dip out’ type of service, so in some ways we think of those fans as ‘casual experts’ – they know their films but they don’t necessarily want to sign up to Sky Movies and commit to a 12-month contract.”

Although Packham says that such social personas can help to guide marketing activity, it remains difficult to target specific groups of users based on their activity. “We can’t go down into that granular detail because these networks don’t provide ad solutions to be able to do that,” he adds.

“I can’t imagine many networks doing it because they probably wouldn’t want to allow clients or media agencies to go into the depths of their usage and see how often people actually are logging in – but it certainly would be fascinating to see.”

Elsewhere, Cadbury aims to cater for different types of social media users by running a range of marketing activity simultaneously. This includes posting social media content during the afternoon in order to attract users at a time of the day when people are looking for a snack.

“We are conscious that light users will only see occasional posts from us, which is why we sometimes post the same or similar message more than once, while also offering regular updates so that more enthusiastic fans have something new to come to,” says Sonia Carter, digital marketing and social media lead at parent company Mondelez International.

Marketers wishing to reach different segments of social media users must also gear their activity to the right social network. The research shows that despite the emergence of numerous new social networks in recent years, only four sites – Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and YouTube – are used at least once every 30 days by 10 per cent or more of UK internet users.

“This doesn’t stack up with what I’m reading day in, day out about all the stuff happening on Instagram and all these other sites,” notes Langford at Harris Interactive. The study shows that although 74 per cent of UK internet users have a Facebook account, only 6 per cent are on Instagram and only 6 per cent have a Pinterest account.

Pinterest, though, is an example of a relatively small social network with particularly defined segments of users. The site, which organises its users according to their interests and pastimes, is running an event this month aimed at raising awareness of the network in the UK by engaging 300 bloggers.

The initiative is named Pin It Forward UK after the original event that launched the network in the US in 2010. The 30-day event sees the bloggers post about how they use Pinterest to express their interests and engage with like-minded people. Pinterest has been promoting the event through its own channels, including a party in London.

Enid Hwang, community manager at Pinterest, says the initiative is an effective means of helping the network better understand its different users. “From the first Pin It Forward experience, we learned early on that bloggers are a core part of our community because of their shared need to collect and organise so many ideas on a regular basis,” she says.

“When we were thinking about a UK launch, we definitely wanted to take the time to get to know our UK community the way we had in the US: face-to-face and hearing their insights.”

Marketers’ response


Alex Packham
Social media manager, Now TV

I’d be interested to see whether any of the social networks would provide an ad tool that would allow us to target people based on their average time of use or how often they access the service. It would be fascinating to see the difference in the engagement rates and uptake of offers based on how often people use their networks.

Because we can’t go down into that granular detail, it has to be something that we keep front of mind rather than actively use. We always carry out research at the start of the year where we do a kind of audience segmentation. We look at our followers and break down the demographics, the locations and so on. It also depends on what you’re marketing.


Enid Hwang
Community manager, Pinterest

We conduct in-person research sessions, run surveys and keep a close eye on metrics to understand how to build products that help with all the different ways people are using our service. We launched Pin it Forward UK by meeting with hundreds of bloggers in the UK and asking them what they wanted from us. This was based on an idea from one of our very first pinners, blogger Victoria Smith.

In 2010, we did something similar in the US and found it valuable because each person involved wrote about how they used Pinterest. We got feedback that bloggers use Pinterest in the daily curation, inspiration-seeking and story planning they do as part of their professions and that they layer that on top of their personal passions.



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