Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Social Networking - An education

Why do people interact with social networks and what experiences do they hope to get from being involved? Unfortunately there are too many issues here to comment on in depth, however from a digital planner’s perspective; the most important aspects for me are what keeps community members (and ultimately consumers) interested.

Online social networks are in essence, the same as traditional social networks, i.e. a group of people who are affiliated to one another through either personal connections (friends, family, work colleagues) or areas of common interest (football fans, favourite bands, travel interests). What differentiates online social networks from any other traditional network is the ease with which members can interact with one another and enhance their offline relationships through the functionality of online social networking sites.

Despite what your preconceptions may be, social networks are not necessarily a place for dating and forming new relationships. In my experience (which I will admit is predominantly based on Facebook) social networks are used by people who want to share with friends and people with similar interests, aspects of their lives which may be of interest.

I think the best way to illustrate the difference between on and offline social networks would be to take an example of a typical offline social network and how it is enhanced once it becomes a part of a social network. Let’s look at a football team which consists of a group of work colleagues who play once a week as part of a Sunday league. Last season their captain had trouble maintaining numbers through lack of communication and a loss of morale through a string of defeats. There were also the issues of trying to get everybody to the different venues each week and invariably losing people through transport issues. Trying to recruit a new goalie also proved problematic as they had already used most of their workforce, including Nick from accounts!

At the start of this season however, their captain decided to embrace the digital age and set up a page on Facebook for his team. He set up a fixture list using the ‘Event’ function so everybody knew when and more importantly where the matches were to be held. Each match was reported on and pictures and videos were uploaded to the page. Also, when their lead striker broke his leg after a vicious tackle during a match with Carrot Digital, a sub-group was set up which recruited a new striker in no time. With their new found efficiency and improved morale, the team have had a run of successes resulting in a fan club being set up which has generated discussions and candid photos from supporters and the ever important footballer’s wives! - http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=560683312 (quentin.media@hotmail.com; ilovefootball)

In order to understand what these networks consist of, let us look at the main players in the social networking arena and what they offer their users.

My Space: In many ways the most well known social network due to its high public profile. Founded in 2003, My Space typifies many of the core elements of social networking. The onus is on user creativity and self-promotion and is used by up and coming bands to promote their music. Personally I find My Space a high maintenance site that requires regular creative input to keep your page fresh. Drawbacks of the site are associated with how open the site is to other users who don’t necessarily know you, having access to whatever information you chose to publicise on your page.


Bebo: Set up two years after My Space its swift growth makes My Space look phlegmatic in comparison. Bebo gives typically ‘un-cool’ brands a creative outlet by offering user interaction through discussion and debate rather than simply forcing a message of product benefits upon the user. Interaction is encouraged as brands offer users benefits through association and mutual creativity, often tapping the huge creative source that network members provide.


Facebook: The last of the current ‘big players’ was set up in February 2004 and began life as a college networking site. Now available to all, Facebook has become something of a phenomenon amongst a large demographic as it combines the attributes of a social network as mentioned above with the added benefits of sites such as Friends Re-united as connections are predominantly made through school, university and the work place. The differentiating factor of Facebook is the onus on events such as birthdays and sporting events that in many ways encourage users to physically meet up and interact, which is lacking from many other social networks.

In my experience there are three key aspects to social networking that maintain user interest. These are quite basic but are ultimately 1) a sense of community 2) the development of friendships 3) ease with which they can interact with other users and ultimately learn from them.

These attributes must be at the forefront of a planner’s mind if they are thinking of placing a client’s product in this environment as there are many pitfalls that could be disastrous to a brand's image in this fragile and wholly un-policed arena. Although the responsibility of social networks is to monitor and check that comments and blogs are professional and friendly (to an extent) it is impossible to rein in a debate that may rage from the presence of a certain brand and their failure to interact in a way that suits the nature of a social network. If such a situation did arise around a brand then this could be highly detrimental to their image and damage their reputation amongst those they are trying to target.

Industry commentators often claim that connections made on social networks are superficial and short lived as the amount of effort required to make connections is minimal. Brands have recognised this ease with which consumers can communicate and jumped at the chance to easily target this consumer group but forget the other more complex details of social networking interaction.

Due to the very nature of social networks and the audience who use them ('Generation Y' or 'Generation Now') traditional interruption and repeat methods of advertising will be ignored and /or rejected. In order for a brand to get their message across to these users, they must employ a strategy of engagement, embracing the core aspects that define the usability of these sites, in order to firstly make contact and then build a relationship with the user. In many ways it must be a game of give and take, where the users feels comfortable engaging with the brand and are rewarded for their loyalty with continued interaction.

Saying that however, the demographic using social networks are diversifying in the age department and niche interest sites are setting up their own networks which encourage users to interact with each other through forums and shared interest pages. Examples of this diversity can be seen in the BBC Food and Top Gear social networks that are currently being created. (The BBC Worldwide looks to invest up to £350 million on this area of online activity – Guardian Jan 07)

The main point to be made here is that although social networks appear to be a fantastic source for highly targeted advertising and brand association, if a brand does not follow the unspoken rules and etiquette which governs a users experience, (or uses walled garden networks (who's audiences tend to be of younger generation)) they are leaving themselves open to attack from all sides.

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