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Navigating Marketing 2.0 (part 1): social networks 4 October, 2006

Posted by Jay Ball in web 2.0.
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In the run up to our Inside the bubble shindig, I’m going to start looking at some of the tools and challenges of marketing within a Web 2.0 world. First up: social networks.

It seems as if you can’t move right now for talk about social networking. Of course, what most people are really talking about is MySpace (with some stateside widening this to include Friendster and Facebook). MySpace gained its 100 millionth account this August and is reckoned to be the world’s 4th most popular English language website. It has also attracted massive marketing attention among those looking to target its users (who are the same people who are switching away from traditional media) as well as a pretty lucrative deal with Google for search.

One of the real triumphs of the mass-appeal social networks is to create a net within a net. (It’s surprising in some respects as this is where Compuserve and AOL were a decade ago.) The networks become self-referencing which binds them ever closer together. You stay on the same site for content and communication, and you gain prestige from the number of links you have (encouraging users to make even more connections). Of course from a marketing point of view, this further insulates users from push-based messaging.

So how have marketers been trying to break through?

The first way is by creating their own branded personas and setting up pages for them. This is the approach Wendy’s took in the US to promote their square burger (generating over 100,000 ‘friends’ in the process). VW USA went further to create a living breathing character in Helga, an über-minimalist icon for the brand. These have succeeded through tapping in to a kind of post-modern, ironic attitude within the networks where users certainly aren’t fooled and are willing to play along (for now). But for how long? This is a trick that can only be pulled so many times and will almost certainly see diminishing returns over time.

Another approach is seeding, whereby influential users carry messages/recommendations out to their contacts. Essentially a word of mouth strategy, this approach is wrapped up in an ethical minefield. How upfront should a brand or seeder be about their motives? Really effective word of mouth works because of its authenticity and the trust that generates. Paid-for opinions are by their very nature less authentic and less believable. And any brand that gets busted is likely to see the downside of social networking pretty quickly. The people behind BzzAgent in the US seem to have a good attitude to this (see their code of conduct). Personally, I would be wary of this approach unless your seeders are 100% transparent and offer something of real value to the community.

A third route is viral content (this could be the something of real value mentioned above). Viral is still largely synonymous with video (probably even more so now with the growth of YouTube) but it does’t have to be. It can range from useful written content to wallpapers, from browser pug-ins to online games. The exact nature depends on relevancy (to the brand and the audience) and on its likely infectiousness. This can include user-generated content which has worked well for some (eg Converse, JetBlue and MasterCard where customers engaged with the brand) and disastrously for others (eg Chevy Tahoe where customers were enraged by the product’s impact on the environment).

Of course, all of this very B2C. What about B2B?

Ironically, social networks in the B2B space predate those in the consumer space. It’s just that they weren’t called social networks, they were called user groups. Of course today we have the likes of LinkedIn, OpenBC and AlwaysOn (which is the one most like a B2C network) as well as forum sites for specific technologies.

With B2B networks, the keys are engagement and usefulness. I remember a few years back when we were pitching for a broadband ISP, I was doing the initial crash course work on them and the business broadband sector. I ended up on a forum dedicated to broadband where there was vigorous debate on the issues of the day. On there was a relatively senior person from the ISP (not a marketing guy) who was endlessly patient and helpful to other forum members. He did more to raise my opinion of the brand than any material I had read to that point.

Of course, dedicating people to this kind of task is expensive (in time and money). Other options revolve around sponsoring sections of a network and facilitating the debate there (no hard sell). Or creating tools that help users find what they need easier. You can evolve the white paper into something more interactive (wikis are perfect for this). Or you can create your own social network around your area of the industry if one does not already exist and there is a clear need for it (significant due diligence is advised here).

Will social networks last? Probably, for a time at least. They are bound to evolve and there will be the occasional backlash against them (especially if they try to hold onto their members too tightly). For technology marketers they represent an interesting opportunity (I would argue especially in the B2B space where no one has done anything too smart yet). It will be interesting to see our panel’s view at the bubble.

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