Now that social networks have achieved global scale, the conversion shifts from quantity to quality. The process of sorting, filtering, weighing, segmenting, and valuing social networks as marketing tools is important because Americans spend nearly a quarter of their time on social networking sites and blogs, and 85 percent of users engage brands in the social media space.
Here are the six biggest topics for the next phase of the ongoing marketing conversation.
1.) Differentiating. Facebook has 500 million users, MySpace has 60 million, Twitter has 145 million, and LinkedIn is up to 60 million. What’s the difference among them?
Jason Witt and his colleagues at MySpace argue there is a qualitative difference between the people who opt into and use different networks. He argues that the News Corporation entry is focused around “stuff” -- deep common interests, particularly music, while Facebook focuses on people and the connections between them.
Even after you filter out his competitive need to differentiate mass from class, he might have a point. An Exact Target survey found that 63 percent of Facebook users connect with old friends, 59 percent use it to maintain personal contacts, and 37 percent use it to stay on top of their social lives.
Twitter, with 29 million active users each month, is about instant news and quick reactions to news or pop culture developments.
LinkedIn focuses on professional connections. Quantcast says the network has “affluent, ambitions and influential professionals,” which is borne out by the fact that 38 percent earn more than $100,000, 75 percent hold college or graduate degrees, and 71 percent are older than 35.
Many try to separate professional contacts on LinkedIn from personal contacts on other networks. However, Facebook Connect’s API and the easy ability to share automatically posts among networks will make this less likely over time, especially since individuals now spend an average of six hours per week managing their social connections and interactions.
The move to differentiate networks is even more critical for the second tier networks like Hi5, Tagged, Bebo, Plaxo, MyYearbook, BlackPlanet, or Yelp. Their continued existence, with much lower numbers of users and traffic depends entirely on their ability to identify, quantify, and monetize their membership rolls.
The growth of gated communities, like SERMO for doctors, aimed strictly at professionals who demand verifiable credentials for admission, is evidence of the growing demand for differentiated and serious communities addressing specific topics. While much of social media is like talk radio, where few participate and many listen, people increasingly want filters to separate the things that matter to them and the things they care about from the mass of blab and trivia on social networks.
An argument for creating distinct communications strategies and messages is aimed at specific social networks. Maybe you shouldn’t use the same message or the same offer in your 140-character tweet, a posting to your Facebook brand page, and the video you upload to YouTube. At present, the attitude, voice, tone, manner, language, and offers are subject to testing and learning.
2.) Drilling Down. Social networks are millions of personal networks. Understanding and documenting who is in these subnetworks is the next step in refining these communities as marketing platforms. If the typical Facebook user has 130 friends (according to Altimeter), are the individual sub-networks homogenous? Can they be easily sorted and tagged? If the typical user is like me, the answer is no.
I have friends on Facebook from elementary and high school, college, camps, Boy Scouts, past and current jobs, summer travel, family members ranging from elderly aunts to 12-year-old nephews, neighbors, people who share one or more of my interests, book club members, choristers, poker players, and friends of friends. My friends are not a psycho-demographic mirror of me. They may or may not be open to pass along messages, although 4 percent voted for my SXSW proposal. My potential as a 130+1 subnetwork, from a viral marketing perspective, is not a sure thing.
That’s why Google and MSN are introducing ways for me to sort and tag my network for them. The race is on to get me to designate someone as a BFF or assign names to my Gmail priority inbox. In doing so, I am doing part of the database build for the networks. If they can get me to point out my poker buddies, the networks can merchandise my node.
3.) Identifying influencers. A major move is on to identify influencers, those individuals who have the respect and authority among peers and the propensity to make recommendations and frequently interact with their own networks.
Daniel Romero at Cornell University’s Center for Applied Mathematics, and three co-authors tested the idea that if you target messages to highly connected people, they will propagate them further in the social network. They studied 22 million tweets with URLs and found that “the correlation between popularity and influence is quite weak… the most influential bloggers were not necessarily most active.”
After some fancy math, they credit influence to people whose postings are re-tweeted often or whose cited URLS are clicked on frequently, which “leads to the possibility of discovering influential individuals within a network.” This is academic-speak for "we can find influencers."
Malcolm Gladwell called these people “connectors” long before social networks emerged. Exact Target calls them “Megaphones” and pegs their numbers at 7 percent of online consumers, and 60 percent of these consumers are 25-54 and 65 percent regularly blog or maintain their own website and have three times more Twitter followers.
Forrester calls them “mass influencers” and estimates they constitute 16 percent of all online consumers who produce 256 billion influence impressions in social networks every year.
The search for influencers -- using a variety of methodologies and labels -- will enable marketers to fish more water in less time by identifying and messaging these subnetworks to borrow the influence and authority of these individuals to penetrate and persuade their networks of friends and contacts. .
4.) Leveraging the network effect. A social network can build an audience for a product, develop significant brand preference and purchase intent and maybe even keep people using a product after initial purchase or prescription.
Damon Centola at the MIT Sloan School of Management researched health-related practices and found that people who had social network connections registered for a heath forum four times faster. The more friends an individual had, the more frequent he or she repeated visits. The MIT team proved that peer pressure can be harnessed online.
5.) Valuing fans. If 40 percent of people who like a brand are motivated by an expectation for coupons or discounts, 36 percent are looking for freebies, and 30 percent want early warnings on sales, just how valuable or desirable are these “fans” -- especially since merchants know that shoppers acquired on deals often only buy when deals are offered?
We have begun to see a wide range of guesstimates about the value of online fans. WPP divided total Facebook revenues by the number of users to calculate a $3 value per fan. Virtue pegs it at $3.60 per fan by taking a media buying perspective. Syncapse surveyed users about purchases to come up with a $136 estimate. Others have gone as high as $316 per fan.
There will be complex formulas for assigning fan value. They will look at behavior, at popularity, influence, channels, and terms of acquisition. Unless somebody comes up with something surprising; a near-term consensus on the value of a like or of a fan will not arise.
The question clients ask is less about absolute value than about buying behavior. They look at the cost and the method of acquisition and ask if those who like their brand buy their products, make referrals, make repeat purchases, and become brand advocates?
For the most part, the jury is out. Few have figured out how to map our social media fans to our existing databases and customer-purchase histories or how to attribute sell-through accurately. Expect considerable testing to find the link between liking and buying. Once found, it will unlock untold spending on social networks.
6.) Mobilizing mobile devices. According to Nielsen, slightly more than 10 percent of all mobile Internet use is devoted to social networks. You don’t need a crystal ball to realize that that number will grow fast. For the foreseeable future, assume this access point will grow and that social networks will devise content specifically for engagement by phone.