Pushing your products successfully on sites such as Myspace.com, Facebook.com and Bebo.com takes a savvy approach, writes Adam Maguire.
Social networking sites offer huge potential to companies willing to take them seriously in their marketing spend but, just as with all forms of online advertising, where there is potential, there are also pitfalls.
On paper, social networking sites seem like a dream come true for marketers, simply because users of popular sites such as Myspace.com, Facebook.com and Bebo.com all volunteer information on their taste and use it to discuss everything that is on their mind.
â€˜â€˜A lot of the more savvy [marketing companies] are already out there selling their products through social networking sites,â€ said Tom Raftery, a social media consultant, â€˜â€˜although a lot of the more traditional ones may be scratching their heads and wondering where to start.â€
With applications like Facebookâ€™s Flyers Pro, it is easy to target specific demographics, even down to the most minor of details. A quick selection shows there are 154,200 people registered as being in Ireland, the vast majority of whom fit within the 18-35 age bracket.
With the Flyers Pro application, you can even narrow down your search to people employed by a particular company, so a headhunter could direct a job listing advert at the employees of a certain company and no one else.
This is something Facebook did recently with an advert for jobs at Facebook, which was targeted at Google employees.
The problem with these figures and statistics plucked from user profiles, however, is that they are reliant on users themselves giving accurate information, which is not always the case.
There is no better example of this than the recent revelation that Tom Anderson, cofounder of Myspace.com, had pretended to be four years younger than he actually was on his on-site profile. According to Andersonâ€™s profile he is about to turn 33, meaning he would have been 27 when Myspace launched in 2003. The reality, however, is that he is about to turn 37, meaning he was 31 when the site launched.
â€˜â€˜Some people will lie and push their age back or forward, but thatâ€™s a fact of life on the internet,â€ said Krishna De, an employer and personal branding strategist. â€˜â€˜In the end, though, the truth will out and, for the most part, people will tell the truth.â€
Indeed, this kind of deception is not unusual to online advertisers. Few search engines now consider the description given by websites when trying to find relevant sites as so many people lied in them in the past to draw in more hits. Click fraud was also a major issue some time ago, where people would create bots to automatically click adverts on their website, thus generating revenue for them.
But there is little doubt that social networking is seen as the next great online revenue producer. Towards the end of October, software giant Microsoft announced a $240 million investment in Facebook for a mere 1.6 per cent stake. Google, among others, had been courting Facebook for some time and Microsoftâ€™s investment is seen as a defensive manoeuvre against its rival, which has dominated online advertising for some time.
Of course, Google is not one to be left behind. Last week it announced its Open Social platform, which aims to unite the structures of numerous existing social media websites so users, developers and advertisers can work across them all at once, rather than deal with them one by one.
These high-profile launches and investments are probably spurred on by the fact that survey after survey is showing how dominant social networking has become online.
â€˜â€˜The biggest difference [between other sites and social networking sites] isnâ€™t so much the destination, itâ€™s what people do at that destination,â€ said Raftery. â€˜â€˜On your average blog, a person might come on, read an article for a few minutes and click to another page and then theyâ€™re gone. But on a social networking site, they spend typically 20 minutes at a time, so the magnitude is far greater.â€
Just as online advertising changed the way people interacted with adverts, social networking sites have the potential to go far beyond the traditional practice of simply finding a target audience and showing your product.
â€˜â€˜At the very least, what people should be doing now with social media sites is monitoring them, looking at the trends and looking at the discussions,â€ said De.
Social networking sites are a treasure trove of information, on everything from the most popular drinks to what TV shows people are watching at the moment, and offer many layers of simple market research to advertisers.
Businesses can, for example, find and analyse a group in Facebook where people are talking about a product or service they like or dislike; or they can identify the most popular TV programme and advertise when itâ€™s on air, maximising their audience.
Companies can also use these sites to interact with customers, find out what people are saying and, if it is negative, try to resolve it. Honesty is always the best policy in this area.
â€˜â€˜People, especially in Ireland, hate having things sold to them and will get turned off if people come at them with a brash sales pitch,â€ said De.
â€˜â€˜When interacting with your customers online, you should use it as an opportunity to give them honest advice and be as helpful as you can. That way, theyâ€™ll end up trusting you and will come back to you again.â€
It is clear that social networking sites are impossible to ignore for anyone wanting to advertise online, especially to a younger demographic.
There are plenty of niche sites appearing to counter the all-encompassing popularity of the big three networking sites; over-50s group Saga has just launched Sagazone, specifically aimed at the 50-plus audience, while other sites are selling themselves as women-only networking sites, for example.
But with people spending more time on social networking sites than any other websites and so much information and discussion available to marketers looking to see what is in or out, these sites will become an asset to any advertiser who to masters them.
â€˜â€˜Itâ€™s about courage, not cash,â€ said De. â€˜â€˜Companies have to be willing to make the leap into something new, but it wonâ€™t cost them very much to do so.â€
The main players:
Founded in January 2005, Bebo pitched itself as a site for people to keep in touch with friends, particularly former classmates. The site has since become the de facto place for schoolchildren to keep in touch on a daily basis. In March 2007, it became the most visited site in Ireland; it is currently in second place. It is extremely popular in Ireland, Britain and New Zealand, but has failed to make much of a mark in the US.
Set up in 2003 as a platform for musicians and bands to promote their music, Myspace has been instrumental in the rise of acts such as Lily Allen and the Arctic Monkeys. That said, its broad user base is not confined to artists, although it tends to be more popular in the US than Europe. The site was bought by Rupert Murdochâ€™s NewsCorp in 2005 and has more than 200 million users.
Established in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook was originally limited to students of Harvard University. Since it was opened up to other users, the site has become a more mature alternative to the likes of Bebo and Myspace.
Surprisingly just 10,000 Irish users are listed as attending college, well below 10 per cent of the Irish user base. Worldwide, the site is approaching 50 million users and expects this to surpass 60 million by the end of the year. The price paid by Microsoft for a 1.6 per cent share means the company is valued at $15 billion.