What Is Marketers' Biggest Challenge When It Comes to Social Networks?

Your Questions Answered: Social Networks

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Marketers still haven't figured out that the interaction between people on social networks is unscripted. And like the people interacting within these networks, marketers have to learn to just react to what's going on.


It's no secret that marketers have yet to completely figure out how to maneuver inside social networks, but most marketing disciplines haven't figured out how to expertly guide marketers either. Each discipline will lay claim to having figured it out, but that's simply not true. Social networking is all about relationship building, and while that may be in the DNA of the public-relations industry, it has done a poor job of claiming that birthright. "I don't think it's discipline-specific," said Rick Murray, president Edelman digital. "Any agency that understands it's all based on conversation and not on messaging is going to be more than entitled to and welcome in the environment."


If ever there was a place in the world of marketing where the motto of "look before you leap" held much credence, it's here. Any marketer worth its salt is going to spend a good deal of time studying the dynamics, rules and language of any social network before attempting to establish a presence there. To think you can just waltz in and begin spouting off about your product is totally wrong. Edelman's Mr. Murray likens it to a cocktail party. "If you walk in with the loudest clothes, you're going to get kicked out, and no one is going to pay attention to you," he said. "Blend in, and once you do, make sure you add value."


If there are any marketers out there who still believe the world of social networks is filled only with young nerdy types and weirdos looking to hook up, they need to take a good second look. Not only is it a prime target for marketers looking to reach moms -- the all-important gatekeeper of the household -- but within some of the most popular networks, such as Facebook, a significant percentage of users are over the age of 35.


Most analysts who watch this space will tell you the same thing: Most marketers think they can simply take their mainstream advertising efforts and activate them on these networks under the assumption that they will flourish. Not only does that completely miss the boat, it also completely misses the driving concept behind an effective existence within social networks. "Frequency of message is not the idea here," Mr. Murray said. "Frequency of contact is." Charlene Li, VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research, also said marketers haven't seemed to figure out that this is a channel where consumers actually want to be spoken to. "[Consumers] are asking questions on these sites that go unanswered," she said. "You can't ask for a better environment. And what do marketers do? They say nothing and put up another ad."


While everyone hasn't agreed on one specific metric yet, marketers can measure the effectiveness of their campaigns through a variety of factors, such as time spent on sites, their friend bases and how many times their brands are mentioned in conversation.


A number of big-name brands immediately come to mind as probable movers and shakers within social networks. Nike, Coke, Axe and Proctor & Gamble already have found some success in the space. But Forrester's Ms. Li said there's one company using social networks effectively that probably isn't obvious: Ernst & Young. "Ernst & Young does a good job in recruitment on Facebook," Ms. Li said. "They put up a schedule and provide all the recruitment information, and when people write questions, recruiters are there to write them back."


The proof is in the numbers: box-office receipts, DVD sales, number of friends on MySpace and results from a Nielsen NRG study, to be more specific. Each provided Disney concrete evidence that continually revitalizing the MySpace profile it created for its 2006 dance-themed movie "Step Up" didn't just help boost the movie's DVD sales and turn its follow-up, "Step Up 2 the Streets," into a surprise box-office hit; it also managed to expand the movie's already sizeable and enthusiastic group of fans. The movie's MySpace profile has more than 156,000 friends.

The results are also evidence that one of the keys to being successful within social networks is not to continually hit consumers over the head with a marketing message but rather to maintain a steady stream of contact with them.

"Step Up" drew in $65 million during its two-month box-office run in 2006. In the past four weeks, the sequel has managed to drum up $53 million in ticket sales, including an opening weekend of $22 million, $2 million more than the original earned. And an in-theater Nielsen NRG survey conducted during the sequel's opening weekend concluded that "Step Up 2 the Streets" was noticed more than its predecessor because of its MySpace profile.

Compare its findings with those of a similar study conducted during the first film's opening weekend: 49% of total respondents saw an ad or information for the movie on MySpace, compared with 37% who saw information on its profile for the original movie. More than twice as many males 25 and younger saw information about the sequel (57%) compared with the original (28%). Among females, the numbers were closer but still higher for the sequel (54%) than the original (46%). And in probably the most interesting finding, 58% of those with a MySpace profile recalled seeing an ad or information for the sequel, while only 26% of those without a profile remembered seeing anything about the movie. Those numbers were also up from 2006 -- 50% vs. 13%.

Jack Pan, VP-marketing strategy and special projects for Disney, said the lesson to be learned is that social networks allow marketers to more efficiently expand their group of consumers while getting the most out of already established marketing properties.

"It's one of the great things you can do on MySpace," he said. "We had a robust group of people who were interested in this movie, so we felt it was natural to just continue the dialogue with them as opposed to starting a new one and rebuilding another community for the sequel."

Through the "Step Up" MySpace profile, MySpace users were able to interact with the movie's director and stars, participate in a variety of contests, win a chance to appear in the movie and gain admittance to an advance "Black Curtain" screening of the film, where they met and spoke to stars of the movie and its soundtrack.

What Mr. Pan said he especially likes about MySpace is its ability to create armies of brand ambassadors.

"The community part is big for us, because creating a forum for discussion and allowing a group to collectively share their interests with each other is like having a digital street team," Mr. Pan said. "By giving these ambassadors content to play with and opportunities to be invested in, we feel like we're providing value to them, and their enthusiasm can do a lot of marketing on our behalf. You see a much more lasting and viral impact than you would through other forms of media."

Naturally, a MySpace executive agreed.

"It's one more in an ever-growing book of best practices and something we have been preaching for a while," said Michael Barrett, chief revenue officer at Fox Interactive Media. "A lot of folks refer to this practice as customer relationship management, but we like to call it community relationship management. The ["Step Up" MySpace profile] has 156,000-plus friends, and that didn't come from one effort; it came from a succession of efforts. They have grown their community and kept it engaged by giving them reasons to keep coming back."

The site will once again be repurposed for the DVD release of "Step Up 2 the Streets."
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