JupiterResearch has released a report suggesting that 50% of brand marketers in the US are going to target social networking sites in their marketing campaigns in 2007.

Gareth Edwards, B2B Centre Associate eMarketing Consultant, examines the world of Social Networking to find out what it is, what you can do with it and whether you should be part of it. First published in 2008

Social Networking

Some of you may have already dabbled in the social networking phenomenon inadvertently by signing up for Friends Reunited, for example, or looking for clips of classic 1970’s rock groups (well I did any way) that fellow travellers have uploaded to YouTube. Alternatively perhaps you signed up for Soflow or Ryze for some more serious, business oriented networking.

Those examples probably give you the gist of what social networking is all about. Social networks themselves are groups of people drawn together by work, shared interests, the need for companionship or a desire to tell the world about something.

The internet has enabled people to be connected together easily and cheaply, and a variety of web technologies such as web sites, search engines, messaging and emails have created an array of services that enable these real life processes to be replicated on a grand and global scale.

Webtastic!

Sites like MySpace, Bebo, Friendster and FaceBook are at the cutting edge of social network development. MySpace has probably attracted the most attention after having been bought by Rupert Murdoch for $770m (yes million) in 2005.

The main developments are that the owners of the sites have developed ways of making all of this interaction commercially viable by offering sponsorship and advertising, and allowing companies like Top Shop to create their own profiles on the sites (Try Top Shop’s MySpace link but turn down your speakers if you don’t like dance music).

There are business oriented sites too. In addition to Soflow and Ryze you can add (amongst others);

  • LinkedIn (international and great for getting in touch with former colleagues)
  • ecademy (UK centric but with global connections)
  • Xing (particularly good for European contacts).

These sites are a bit more sober minded than their teen focused cousins but essentially they are about establishing and promoting an online profile and creating business contacts. Ecademy has more facilities to actively sell to other members and has a specific market place section on its website.

And there are lots of more focused (and frequently more interesting places) as well:

  • Try Flickr for some fantastic photos (include some of mine)
  • StumbleUpon provides a service to serve up a random website based on your preferences – and behind the scenes you can nominate sites yourself and get in touch with other people.
  • Reevo provide real reviews from real customers and has sponsorship from some high street retailers.

Sometimes the term ‘social networking’ is also used to encompass other web based concepts such as forums and blogs. In essence these are just places to communicate with other people and, sometimes, to listen to what other people have to say.

So What?

The sites that I have mentioned are not everybody’s cup of tea. As a seasoned user of various business-oriented services I can confirm that they require more effort than you might think to participate in successfully. There is also the irritation of being contacted by people that you don’t want to speak to.

But there are some very positive aspects to social networking and some good marketing opportunities which I would like to highlight.

Your target audience

One potential benefit of any of the social networking services is their potential for reaching prospective customers.

The youth oriented sites have become significant in the music and film worlds because their membership is focused on the 12 – 24 age group who spend the most money on such things. Corporate marketers are concentrating their efforts on trying to create a buzz around their products to initiate viral marketing, where the normal referral process is magnified and speeded up to create major bursts of consumer activity.

If the teens aren’t your focus then look at sites or facilities that attract your audience. Remember that trade associations, industry bodies and even trade unions can be considered to be part of the social networking world now that most of them have websites and many have forums.

Whichever community you target you have the option of operating from the inside and using forums, blogs, article, letters to the editor and emails as methods of marketing to your chosen audience. This may only cost the price of the membership subscriptions. Remember though that it can take quite a lot of time. The alternative is to sit outside the group and use banner ads and sponsorship, or buy the email list, to communicate en masse. For start-ups and SMEs this might be quite expensive and the hit rate may not meet your expectations.

Your own network of contacts

For many of you, especially if you are working on your own, one of the major benefits of social networks is simply the opportunity to generate contacts and keep in touch with people.

These links could be;

  • Potential business partners
  • Sub-contractors with specific expertise
  • Well-connected people who can give you referrals

Ecademy, LinkedIn, Soflow, Ryze and Xing, for example, all support these activities and can be used for free (either on trial or with limited functionality) and have subscription packages at around the £10 per month mark. Ecademy, in particular, also promotes face to face gatherings. These are organised either through members own auspices or via organisations such as BRE (Business Referrals Exchange).

My experience of using these sites is that they can be effective in helping you to keep in contact with people and develop new business relationships. For instance I have used LinkedIn to identify contacts in Canada who I subsequently met up with whilst on holiday. However the caveat is that you need to spend time to make it work. Simply registering is not enough. Being proactive is definitely the order of the day.

Search engine visibility

Social networking is primarily a web based phenomena. So the great thing about social networking websites is that information you add about yourself, your company and your offers becomes instantly visible, lingers and adds to your overall internet “footprint”.

As a minimum most sites allow you to enter contact details, including URL, eMail and phone numbers. This means you have the opportunity to get an inbound link to your site from a well regarded (in search engine terms) site to your site. Ryze, for example, has an overall Google Page Ranking of 7/10.

Many sites allow more detailed information to be provided in the form of keyword rich text links back to your own site (e.g. the nb2bc provides impartial e-business advice to West Midlands SMEs) which could positively influence your keyword rankings. They may also provide opportunities to contribute articles, Blogs and forum entries. Soflow, for example, allows members to post questions or requests that others can respond to. These provide great opportunities to “blow your own trumpet”.

Summary

My guess is that social networking will creep into all of our lives (whether we like it or not) because someone somewhere will create a service that pertains specifically to your business, your interests, your location. We might not recognise it as social networking as such – it won’t matter. What’s important is that, from a business perspective, we see a potential audience, a group of useful people to know or a way to get greater search engine visibility.

©Gareth Edwards, Director of Arrowsmith Marketing and an Associate eMarketing Consultant of the B2B Centre.

 

Arrowsmith Marketing – Social Media marketing for West Midlands businesses