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Social Network Strategy

We create and consume it at an incredible rate, social media is a fitting reflection of our fascination with the engorged lifestyles of 15-minute celebrities.  From Big Brother to big business, we are chattering endlessly about the daily goss like never before.  Social media is at the heart of this free-wheeling exchange, a digital surrogate for real-world community interactions and it includes any activity connecting people through participation and dialogue.

Marketers are following suit, using digital tools – in the form of blogs, networks, wikis and widgets – to efficiently segment and target consumers.  Sites classified as social media often include: networking; instant messaging; fan/passionate interest; photo sharing; artwork gallery; mobile communications; reviews and more.

Social media is not necessarily user-generated content, although the inherent community aspect does tend to bias the contribution towards users. For example, YouTube and Vimeo are primarily user-generated video platforms whereas Meetup and Digg are social media communities.

Of course, social networks are nothing new.  Knitting circles, literary groups, secret societies and organised religions have, for millennia, clumped us together into spastic communities based on physical location and broad interests.  Today, however, the internet has released us from these corporeal bonds and it is terra nova for marketers of all stripes.

Social networking has been a red-hot topic for more than a year and it’s no surprise they garner a lot of attention.  Forrester research investigated European social media adoption patterns and found the UK a clear leader. Nearly 35% of consumers belong to at least one social network[1] and a whopping 64% say they participate in social media – double the European average.  Clearly, society has pounced on these tools, putting them to work in their personal and professional lives.

The Strategy of Social Networks

Facebook, the current bandwidth-soaking social network du jour, has staked an important strategic position.  It does not purport to be a media company like Yahoo!; instead, it sees itself as a greenfield for “stacks”, industry lingo describing the tasty – and addictive – bite-sized software widgets which not only attract new users but keep them coming back to engage in virtual food fights or poker duels.

It has, in effect, outsourced its marketing.

The market leader, MySpace, dominates with more than 70 million registered users – but Facebook is growing faster: in June alone, the number of Facebook’s unique visitors increased by 103%[2], lifting its overall customer base to 30 million globally.

Facebook was conceived as a closed network for Harvard University students whereas MySpace was designed for the mass market.  MySpace members take pride in loading their pages with garish sights and sounds; clicking from site to site reveals an eye watering menagerie of colours not found in nature.  It’s fun and expressive for those so inclined; for others, particularly older professionals, such incongruity rankles as nothing more than electronic manifestations of juvenile angst.

In stark contrast, Facebook’s single, common design template is positively boring in comparison.  But it’s also far easier on the eye and produces in a more consistent user experience.

In September 2006 the site opened its service to anyone, not just those within a university setting.  In May, Facebook threw down the gauntlet, unfurling itself as a platform for developers already poised to unleash new, creative widgets.  Punters flocked and traffic exploded.  One down side persists, though: social software spreads like mad and it’s a fine line between viral marketing and spam.

Nevertheless, Facebook is popular because it eschews MySpace’s heavy-handed advertising-laden environment; time will tell whether the upstart can resist the siren sound of ad dollars left behind.

Tactical Social Networks

Some brands are finding powerful, tactical uses for social networks, often as extensions of existing customer loyalty activity.

Harley Davidson, the American motorcycle manufacturer, clawed its way back from the brink of extinction in the 1970s thanks largely to the reactivation of its rider community called the Harley Owners Group (HOG). Harley Davidson’s product image, combining brute mechanical force with an indomitable spirit of individuality, engenders some of the most fervent customer loyalty of any global brand.

Harley Davidson actively foments this passion online.  Harnessing the dynamic immediacy of the web, the HOG web service connects more than a million enthusiasts around the world, delivering benefits such as organised group rides, exclusive products and discounts, insurance premium discounts and the newsletter, Hog Tales.  For Harley Davidson, its HOG social network delivers direct, financial dividends and is worth actively supporting.

Conclusion

Social networks are no longer the blunt tools which first permeated the web as the sun set on the 20th century.  Today’s software is nimble and feisty, eager to play nice with other, complimentary tools such as Flickr and web-based e-mail programmes.

There is no one game in town and the rules are constantly being re-written.  For brands of all sizes, it is likely social networks have something to offer.

[1] Kemp, Mary Beth; Europeans Have Adopted Social Computing Differently, Forrester Research, 11 June 2007

[2] Source:  UBS Research/Comscore (June 2007)

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