How Marketers Tap Facebook and Twitter, Apps and Widgets

Digital Marketing Guide: The Social Web

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Questions Answered
Isn't the entire web social these days?

To an extent, yes. If 2008 was the year everyone -- and their grandmas -- joined a social network, then 2009 is the year those networks' social graphs spread their tentacles beyond their borders to other sites across the web. Already it's common for many sites, including major news sources and entertainment properties, to have commenting and sharing features. So we admit the social web is a pervasive concept. But there are several interesting newer developments at Twitter and Facebook, as well as in the widget space and the app world.

What's the story with Twitter?

Twitter is one of the fastest-growing social networks, but it's very different from Facebook and MySpace. The microblog essentially began as a mass text-messaging-meets-instant-messaging utility. You sign up for an account, people follow you, and you follow them. When you "tweet" a message, the folks following you see it instantly on their phones and computers.

Everyone bandies around the term "social graph." What exactly does it mean?

A social graph is a map of a person's connections, through which they communicate and share information. People often talk about social graphs in relation to social networks, such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Think about when you tweet something really juicy on Twitter. Some of your followers find it interesting and forward it -- or "retweet" it, in Twitter parlance -- to their followers. And some of those followers retweet it again. Your message just traveled through the social graph.

Some folks think this kind of message amplification is the best way to measure effectiveness in a tool like Twitter. Analytics guru Avinash Kaushik is one of them. He said it's the difference between just broadcasting a message to your group of existing followers and getting the group to spread the buzz for you.

With all this Twittering and social networking, is anyone still blogging?

Yes, people are still blogging. But the volume of posting has dropped off a bit in the past year, according to Technorati's latest "State of the Blogosphere" report. That said, the number of people reading blogs has never been higher, which is why marketers such as Quaker, Kraft and Walmart have all done extensive blog outreach programs in the past year. For marketers, it's important to always identify yourself as such; for bloggers, remember to identify sponsored posts. Tricking readers -- aka consumers -- is never a good idea.

You were joking about grandma joining a social network -- right?

While social networking used to be the domain of the under-30 crowd, its use among older adults is skyrocketing. As of January, more than 50% of Facebook users and 44% of MySpace users in the U.S. were over 35 years old, according to ComScore estimates. The single biggest age demographic in the U.S. on both Facebook and MySpace is between 35 and 44. Indeed, Facebook says its fastest-growing demo is 55-plus.

Won't all the kids leave if the adults are everywhere?

Sure, that's a worry. But that's why social networks keep adding new features and functions -- to make themselves more useful and, thus, more entrenched in users' lives. In 2007 Facebook opened its platform to outside developers to create applications. It didn't charge developers but rather counted on the applications to make Facebook more useful and entertaining. Last year it introduced a concept called Facebook Connect, which lets users connect to their Facebook friends when they're not on Facebook (see how used it in its inauguration coverage).

Speaking of applications, what's the difference between that and a widget?

The short answer is that a widget is simply one kind of application. The longer answer is that a widget is generally what's meant by a stand-alone set of code that can be posted independently in a variety of places: on web pages, blogs, mobile-phone screens and desktops. Application, short for application program but more often simply called an app, is a much broader term that indicates any software program designed for users.

So they're new?

Not really. Applications have been around since the advent of computers, and widgets have existed for several years. But thanks to Apple's App Store, launched last year, as well as the rise of Facebook applications, the idea of apps has hit the mainstream. There are more than 25,000 available for the iPhone, and 800 million have been downloaded. Facebook is even more crowded, with more than 52,000 apps. Some brands have created their own apps with success -- TripAdvisor's Cities I've Visited has 1.8 million active monthly users -- but the vast majority have far less.

LinkedIn, unlike Facebook, gives its application code only to approved development partners, and launched last fall with 10 apps from eight partners. They are, as you might guess, more work- and business-related, including Amazon's Reading List, TripIt's My Travel and Google Presentations.

What's a marketer supposed to do with an app? We're not developers.

True, you might need tech help to create apps, but that's not what you should be thinking about.

Instead, think marketing: Figure out how a widget or application could benefit your brand. And while you're thinking, don't forget the No. 1 rule of widgets and applications: They must offer useful, helpful or entertaining value to customers and potential customers.

"As a brand, you need to know how your audience will interact with it," said Jeff Blackman, group account director at IQ Interactive. "They need to have utility, or else it's just a gimmick."

So I give my customers a cool widget with my brand on it, and they're happy, because who doesn't love free? But what do I get out of it?

One of the reasons marketers are excited about applications and widgets is because they get them closer than ever to customers. A widget downloaded to a consumer's desktop is, as one person put it, the "holy grail." It's a daily reminder of your brand. The same goes for apps on mobile phones and on social-networking pages. And not only did that consumer invite your useful widget or application into their lives, but now it might be close by when they're making a purchase. Retailers, such as Target and JCPenney, have created shopping widgets that offer gift suggestions, style tips and fashion trends.

What you can learn from a Facebook app

One market-research firm has launched a Facebook application as a way to gather data on consumers, their friends and the relevant data that comes from comparing ourselves with others.

The Compared to Me Facebook app could hold potential for marketers.
The Compared to Me Facebook app could hold potential for marketers.
Tom Anderson's Facebook app Compared to Me is explained as a "simple and fun tool that allows users to compare themselves with their friends." It's also a way for marketers to understand people's motivations and views of themselves. And, he said, "We can leverage social networking for research."

There are more than 2,300 people using the month-old application (in beta). The application shows a picture of you and one of your friends chosen randomly from your list. You are asked a series of randomly generated, comparative questions such as: Who probably drives a better car? Who is probably better looking? and Who is probably better connected?

After taking the quiz, users are rewarded with their relative rankings in 13 categories, including creativeness, spirituality, productivity, "techiness," happiness and sociability.

"Marketers are trying hard to sell based on emotion and self-image," Mr. Anderson said. "For the first time ever, we are getting a real sense of how people actually view themselves vis-à-vis their peers. Marketers can leverage these findings to uncover gaps in self-esteem/self-image and message more effectively on emotional attributes that are most important to us."

-- Beth Snyder Bulik
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