Social networking sites, with their huge audience, could be the perfect vehicle for your business’s offerings. The trick is making that user-connection. BRAD HOWARTH gleans some top tips from the experts.
By Brad Howarth
Social networks, with their tantalising caché of switched-on consumers, offer a veritable mother-lode – if only businesses can get clicks from the cliques.
Getting your company on to the internet is one thing. Finding an audience for your website and content is something else entirely. While many companies are investing in search engine marketing as a means of bringing people to their sites, why not simply go to where the people online already are?
The growth of social media sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo has been one of the most striking phenomena of the recent tech boom, drawing millions of members and extraordinary valuations. MySpace for instance now boasts three million members in Australia.
According to the web ratings agency Hitwise, both MySpace and Facebook are among the 10 most visited websites by Australians. Traffic to the “net communities and chat” industry category that covers these websites grew by 47% for the 12 months to 17 November 2007.
These sites are also highly engaging for consumers. Over the same 12 months Hitwise found that the average period of time that a person spent on MySpace was 27 minutes, compared to the average of just 12 minutes for regular sites.
The general manager for Bebo in Australia, Francisco Cordero, says this means it is becoming more important for brands to become involved.
“Everything happens on one page, and the individual customises that page to share with others,” Cordero says. “Users are collapsing their web world into their customised page, which means anyone who has a content or marketing strategy should start with those pages.”
Bebo has signed numerous content deals, including with the BBC, while the Australian digital media company destra also recently signed a deal to provide video content to MySpace.
According to the managing director of the Melbourne-based internet strategy group Clear Light Digital, Jamie Silver, social media sites fulfil a need for community that many people are unable to fulfil offline.
“The internet has always been about that – even in the early days before browsers, there were bulletin boards and ways for people to come together,” Silver says. “But what’s great about social networking now is it takes it one step further, so not only do you get access to your immediate network, but you get access to their network.”
Silver says that the popularity of these sites means many advertising clients are looking to get their ads to on MySpace and Facebook, before even creating a strategy or campaign.
Social networking sites also have a strong influence over directing internet traffic. For instance, Hitwise found that MySpace and Facebook were responsible for 10% of visits to online shopping sites in Australia.
Not surprisingly, many Australian businesses are now starting to make use of that popularity, creating their own mini-sites, groups and applications within these larger sites to attract consumers. The online recruitment company Seek has launched several job search tools through Facebook. Those online tools then direct users through to the Seek site.
“That gives us another audience to engage with online,” says Seek’s corporate strategy director Jason Lenga. “Within a very short period we’ve had a couple of thousand people sign up to the Seek-sponsored group, which is a great start. We’ve also seen a lot of interaction with the applications.
“The audience is enjoying it because they see us as a leading brand online, and it helps us to think about and prepare for the next round [of internet development]. But it feels like this is here to stay – it’s not a big fad that’s going away,” Lenga says.
It is also easy and reasonably cheap to develop the applications on Facebook, he says, particularly on a cost-per-user basis.
Similarly, the REA Group (owners of realestate.com.au) has created a Facebook page to communicate with staff and interact with the wider community. The site also acts as a recruitment point, and REA Group has hired several people who contacted it through Facebook.
However, Silver warns that social media sites can be a double-edged sword, as brands lose a degree of control when they open up to a community.
“People might be saying terrific things about you, but they might be saying less helpful things are well,” Silver says. “Certainly we’ll see youth brands adopt it quickly, but it will be a while before banks have a MySpace page.”
One of the great unknowns also is how long the popularity of specific sites will last. Earlier this decade Friendster was the most popular social media site, but has since tumbled down the rankings.
There is always a possibility that the same will happen with the current crop, as new technologies emerge, or users grow jaded with the idea of brands and politicians wanting to be their friends online.
Silver says it is also increasing likely there will be more fragmentation of social media. “There’s going to be more niche social networking sites,” he says. “Rather than opening it up to the whole of the planet, there’ll be much more focus on different groups within society.”
For instance, Clear Light Digital has been engaged in creating a closed online social network for children in the Starlight Foundation charity.