As the quest to find better ways to monetize these elusive sites continues, one start-up thinks marketers should be looking at the verbs -- what people are doing on the sites -- instead of just who people say they are.
An ad-technology firm called Lotame is trying to aggregate inventory on several of the smaller, so-called second-tier social-- networking sites and, in doing so, create a system where it targets not just by interests but also by how often people comment, upload photos and video, and rate other people's media.
"Just learning about someone's interests is leaving a lot on the table," said Andrew Monfried, CEO and a former Advertising.com exec. "In any community, 10% to 20% of the people are content creators or producers, and these are the people influencing the discussions. We target them in a way that allows the advertiser to clearly pick out the audience of those influencers."
YouTube has rolled out the idea of targeting action-based user information as well, using its registration data. At the point of signup, YouTube members specify if they're a creator and, if so, whether they fall into the musician, director, how-to or comedy category.
The site employed such tactics working with HP on a recent campaign and found interactions were eight times higher when they targeted creators, said Shiva Rajamaran, product manager. "HP is a brand that's all about creation and wanted to inspire people and reward them for creating," he said.
Some create, others critique
According to Forrester analysts Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff in their book "Groundswell," 18% of U.S. adults are creators, or online consumers who publish a blog, maintain a web page or upload video. Another 25% are critics, the people who react to online content, posting comments or ratings and reviews.
"If you look at the ways researchers have broken down the kinds of people using social media, it's by various levels of activity," said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, which has run several campaigns within social networks. "The hunch is that people who are more engaged could potentially be more valuable."
Mr. Schafer is familiar with Lotame but hasn't worked with it on any campaigns; the agencies who talked about their experiences with the company had only started experimenting with it.
Steve Patch, digital-media head at Allied Media, a marking and publicity firm that specializes in the film and music industries, said he ran a campaign for a very large popular band and built a hypothetical target profile of who he thought the fan was. "In addition, I can target the most engaged fans," he said. "If somebody is commenting a lot, posting a lot of pictures, rating things, they're engaged in the social network, and if we can serve them with an appropriate creative ad, there's a greater chance they'll opt in and raise their hand and say 'Yeah, I want to be a part of that.'"
In terms of performance, he said Lotame fared relatively equal to a contextual music site on its best day and better on its worst day. In other words, there were fewer swings between the high and lows.
Horizon Media tried out the Lotame network to promote the TV show "Gene Simmons Family Jewels" for client A&E. When the results came back, it showed that the people who responded the best to the ads were also heavy photo uploaders, said Blake Eisler, senior account manager at Horizon Interactive. She said the agency can now use that insight to plan future campaigns. "Maybe a Gene Simmons photo contest would be a next good campaign," she said.
MySpace, which has introduced "hypertargeting," chunks its audience into many different vertical-interest buckets. Neither it nor Facebook works with Lotame, a factor that illustrates the network's biggest challenge: persuading the larger sites to give up data on how users act within the networks, according to people familiar with the technology.
That's a fact that doesn't bother Mr. Monfried, who recalls that when he helped start Ad.com in 1999, he went to agencies to sell the third-party network and the first question he got was "Do you have AOL, MSN and Yahoo?"
"I'd say no, but we help aggregate the rest of the internet," he said. "Lotame is doing much the same thing with social media. There's value in mid-tail social sites ... and a huge market as this evolves outside of today's portals. I'd call MySpace and Facebook today's portals for social networking."