Social Media Who’s Who

Social media offers marketers vast potential for consumer connection. Nielsen recently reported that social networking sites are visited by three-quarters of global consumers who go online. But for many (if not most) marketers, the challenge of social media is not about quantity — it’s about quality.

The pressing issue is knowing who, exactly, is visiting social networking sites, blogs and other social media, as well as their motivations for being there, so that marketers know which ones are worth their time.

Our agency recently conducted research to answer that question, working with data from Experian Simmons’ national consumer and new media studies. Among the more surprising — or, at least, counterintuitive — findings is that while young adults spend far more time with social media than other groups, the majority of users are not 20-somethings tied to their laptops, iPhones or PDAs.

Our analysis of social media users — consumers of any age that use Facebook, MySpace and Flickr, or check out the myriad media formats that allow one to interact through blogs and message boards or share content on YouTube, Tumblr and others — identified six different segments, each with specific motivations. They are: Flickr Families, Proud Parents, Social Surfers, Rates & Dates, Blog Babies and Career Climbers.

All the consumers studied are well educated and earn higher incomes than the general population. Despite differences in their online habits, all are reasonably facile Internet consumers. Most relevant to marketers, however, is that some groups are better candidates for social media outreach than others.

For example, though both the Flickr Families and Proud Parents are frequently engaged in social media, they are online largely to remain in contact with their children. For Flickr Families, social media serves as a scrapbook and switchboard rolled into one; for Proud Parents, it’s a way to track their kids’ accomplishments. For the most part, they are likely better reached through traditional communication methods, with social media playing a supporting role.

On the other end of the spectrum are Blog Babies. Social media is their lifeblood and lingua franca. The likelihood of effectively and efficiently reaching this target through channels outside of social media is low and opportunities within social media are huge. The catch: respect for and being attuned to their online social environments is critical.

On the spectrum between these groups are three others with distinct potential for marketers: Social Surfers, Rates & Dates and Career Climbers.

Social Surfers tend to be young, single adults and couples who wish to connect with and benefit from the experiences of others with similar interests. They value information from trusted sources and are active on message boards and social sites (e.g., politically focused blogs) that connect them with like-minded users. They’re also enthusiastic about venues that put them in touch with old friends and help nurture professional relationships.

Because of their propensity for sharing knowledge, promotional content should be designed with viral distribution in mind. Marketers can feel confident “putting in” to the social network streams of Social Surfers; given their egalitarian nature, this group will be more open to brand marketers’ participation in social conversation, provided the input adds value to the on- and offline experiences of all community members.

Those in the Rates & Dates segment consume huge amounts of information across media platforms, particularly from financial data sources. This group’s members consider themselves financially stable, and soak up “serious” print, broadcast and online media, favoring sites that mirror their offline activities. Online, financial information searches and stock trading top their activities. Despite their use of blogs and social media for information seeking, they don’t use such platforms to socialize — with the exception of online dating sites. To reach them, marketers need to deliver useful content such as tools, discounts and access to information unavailable elsewhere.

The Career Climbers segment, which consists of middle-age people, or those approaching it, is better educated than the others. More concerned about their careers, they aggressively employ social media for their professional advancement. Career Climbers’ members are also more likely to visit professional networking sites to find relevant information and sometimes even express their views. For example, they might become thought leaders on LinkedIn.

However, Career Climbers don’t spend an inordinate amount of time online, and, when they do, they focus on utilitarian tasks. Case in point: They’re more likely to make travel arrangements, manage their finances or read the news than to surf blogs or participate on message boards.

Much as with Rates & Dates, marketers must bring real value to attract Career Climbers’ attention. The most obvious examples are content that can help them advance professionally, as well as tools and features that can help them make a positive impression and stand out from the crowd.

For marketers to effectively harness the power of social media marketing, and be able to connect with prospective customers, they must first understand why social media users are online — and what they do while there. More than any other media platform today, social media is highly elective and personalized. After all, what users within social marketing environments online do — and how they do it — reflects a great deal of useful marketing information, including these users’ values and interests.
John Mahler is a partner at digital agency GreaterThanOne. He can be reached at