"Clients are rightfully a little bit timid about activating in a space where there is not a lot of hard and fast research," he said.
Mr. Sarpen and his colleagues at Initiative are looking to demystify social networks with their second annual InVision Study for Social Marketing. The study is based on an online questionnaire conducted in April that was sent to 1,700 consumers aged 13 and older.
Mr. Sarpen, 27, has studied emerging media for Initiative for about two-and-a-half years. Prior to that, he worked at NBC Universal in audience analysis. He talked with MediaWorks about the results of the study and what they mean to marketers.
MediaWorks: This is the second year Initiative has conducted a study on social networking -- how did this year's results compare with last year's?
Mr. Sarpen: We saw a big rise year to year among total respondents -- in '06, 33% said they had visited a social-networking site. In '07, that jumped to 43%. What's most interesting there is that the gain came from adults ages 18-34, not teens. Teens were already there. Three quarters of teens have gone. Now you are seeing the growth among adults ages 18-34, and it leads you to speculate, "Where is the growth going to be in the future?" I don't think this medium is going away. The number of sites that cater to adults [will] grow, whether it's business professionals or soccer moms. Those sites are going to pop up and a lot of them are going to reach the intended group.
MediaWorks: So you think social-networking sites are going to fragment?
Mr. Sarpen: I think so. You can make the analogy to TV. You've got broadcast networks, like MySpace and you've got narrow cast or cable networks that maybe talk to one of these smaller groups. LinkedIn is going to be big with business folks, but it's at a smaller scale now.
MediaWorks: Your study shows that people spend a limited time on social-networking sites -- what does that mean for marketers?
Mr. Sarpen: It means you have to be dynamic, you have to get your message across quickly and talk to the right people. We asked a few people about attitudes toward advertising and, in general, people are interested in products if it's directed to them, if it's a product they want to see. So marketers just need to be cognizant --- and social-networking sites are already starting to do this for you. They've got specialized groups -- whether you are into weight training, or you are into collecting -- of attaching that message just in the hobbies and passions group so you are talking to people who are passionate about your product.
MediaWorks: How can marketers use social networks better?
Mr. Sarpen: Marketers and social-networking sites need to be aware of the amount of advertising they have. In this medium, there is going to be a lowered threshold to the number of ads and messages that you see. The other thing is you need to be genuine, so don't create fake things or misrepresent your own brand. You want to be as true to the message as you can.
MediaWorks: Do you think users are becoming wary of advertisers on social networks?
Mr. Sarpen: Maybe it raises more alarm bells with us than the consumers, but if ad content is really organic and fits in the space, it's almost like providing information as opposed to being an ad that you tune out.
MediaWorks: What are marketers doing right in social networking?
Mr. Sarpen: Most social networks offer a video section, so, for example, if you have things like a movie trailer or clips, those really seem to fit in naturally. ... I also think that because [social networks are] such a viral space -- they don't have to advertise to get new members. People are bringing each other in. So if advertisers can utilize that and say, "Share the message with someone for a reward or a discount," or something like that, it could be highly successful.
MediaWorks: What's your take on the argument that social marketing should be used less like paid media and more like a customer-relationship-management tool?
Mr. Sarpen: I definitely think blogs could be used as customer relationship management ... because that's really kind of a place for unfettered market research, whether it's us or anyone who's asking questions, that person knows their information is going to be counted. On a blog, you can really collect information and attitudes about a marketing campaign without people knowing you are there. In terms of a paid model, there is always going to be pay involved, and I don't think that's a bad thing.