Using Networks Wisely

The evolution of Web 2.0 is forcing marketers to once again rethink how to successfully engage consumers. Will social networks continue to be perceived as valuable? Is it easy to access information and other network members? Will it aid a networker in customizing its view or persona? Is it timely, interest based and/or unique enough to be share worthy?

At RMG Connect, we call these questions the 4 Cs:

1. Contribution. User-created networks have a self-regulating process by which quality and importance rise to the top, while less relevant or less interesting content is pushed to obscurity. This is not censorship or control by the organizer, but rather a democratic “voting” by the users on the value of content provided by any party. Thus, the strength of the network comes from the collective judgment of the network members. YouTube has its top video list based on both views as well as viewer ratings; Digg articles move to the “front page” based upon the number of diggs (clicks) they receive; Google algorithms push the best search location to the top of the list, based upon the number of users who choose that site. Knowing this, loading your TV spot on YouTube, posting your company on Wikipedia, or searching for friends for your bank on MySpace will rarely be viewed as a “valuable contribution.”

2. Connections. Too often marketers add a section to their Web site or create a microsite tied to a campaign or promotion, and stop. This communications effort takes no advantage of network value. To look at one of marketing’s recent acclaimed successes, Snakes on a Plane, reveals some key components of connecting via networks. If you Google the movie title, you get everything from the actual movie Web site to news gossip on Defamer.com to various blogs.

Look at the number of networks posting and tagging information available elsewhere. This is hardly by accident. Snakesonaplane.com is as much about outbound communications as it is a destination for info. Some of the more customary site content of trailers, audio and video clips, and photos exist. But the site also provides a direct connection to MySpace, where you can customize your profile with “Snakes” content. You can also send a friend a customizable message from Samuel L. Jackson.

3. Customization. It is important for marketers to understand that beyond the consumer’s desire to put a personal imprint on something, customization is also a portal to who and what a user finds interesting. On sites like Cyworld and Second Life, self-expression takes on a whole new dimension, with members willing to pay cash to customize their space and identities. After they’ve customized themselves, members tailor their access to info and to other network members.

Networks have both a public and private dimension. Personal info is as viewable in the public space as much or as little as the owner wishes, but direct communication is by invitation only. This is key for marketers to understand. Providing boring content to the public dimension merely labels you as uninteresting. Try to “push” yourself into the private dimension and networkers will publicly ridicule you.

4. Content. Effective content can be categorized three ways: timely, interest based and share worthy. Is it newsworthy, a sneak peek or a new perspective on the world around us? See the “Broken Down Jeep” video for Snickers on YouTube. Contrast that with the Snickers song video. One is timely and original, the other is simply boring.

TagWorld and Digg have overt navigation systems that categorize content by task or genre (technology, business, sports, gaming, etc.). Many sites like Pandora and YouTube have an intuitive suggestion system that modifies alternatives as the user views content. This again reinforces the need for the marketer to consider content from the point of view of the brand’s genre, personality or experience—not from its brand name or explicit benefits. Apple’s “Here’s to the Trouble Makers” video succeeds, while the 30-second TV spots for iMac and Intel’s “Let’s Be Creative” don’t.

It should go without saying that posting advertising, info from your Web site or brochures are rarely inviting enough to encourage engagement by network members. If they were looking for that information, they would search your site directly. Instead, marketers should look to sponsor info created by members and provide tools that let members either customize their content or access new content. Nike’s Joga Bonita World Cup effort understands this well. It not only provided excellent clips of soccer skills, it encouraged contribution by others that spread in multiple networks because they were not overtly self-serving.

If you can answer “yes” to three of the above criteria, then you have the beginning of a networked communication program. We would encourage you to consider one more thing before trying a marketing effort via networks: How will we define and measure success? Many ideas are fun and cool, but all have a real-world cost. If the criteria for success and a means of measurement aren’t put into place, your first effort via networks may be your last—if the CFO has anything to say about it.