Marketers who think bigger is better may want to reconsider, at least when it comes to social media. Ad spending on those sites is predicted to top $1.6 billion this year, according to eMarketer. However, much of it will be plunked into smaller, emerging social networks.
While My Space and Facebook get all the attention, social media focused on topics as remote as knitting or bird watching can be a strong branding target these days, said Anthony Acquisti, strategy supervisor with emerging media at OMD, New York.
His running tally of emerging social networks, now up-wards of 7,000, is evidence of an explosive market.
These more focused audiences should be popular with brands because “relevance,” he said, “trumps size.”
By 2011, eMarketer estimates, half of all adults in the U.S., and 84 percent of online teens will use social networks. That’s both a golden opportunity and a colossal headache for brands trying to nail down the best new network for their campaigns.
Sites like imeem, an emerging market leader, are carving out their niche now, making their case for advertising dollars. The site, dedicated to music, videos and photos, works with Burger King, Scion, Nokia and T-Mobile, which sponsored a “content capture”in the fourth quarter of 2007. This involved artist Jay Holiday texting his thoughts on tour to imeem members through his T-Mobile sidekick. “We tend to skew younger and edgier,” with a demographic of 13-24, said Steve Jang, imeem CMO.
That these sites are so segmented means they can offer unique campaign opportunities to brands. But how brands execute social media campaigns is as important as where they do it. And keeping new sites hip and unencumbered by advertising is a balancing act for both the brands and the networks.
At Twitter, a site that integrates text messages with social networking, companies like shoeseller Zappos.com are jumping on board. The footwear e-tailer is sending its own text messages to the site about products and “tweepstakes,” giveaways the company offers to Twitter members.
“The real way of getting into social media is you don’t advertise, you participate in the community,” said Pawel Szymczykowsky, Zappos’ software engineer.
Up and coming networking sites are also forming alliances through programs like OpenSocial, Google’s common API program that allows brands to build applications, like games, to engage users. Currently more than a dozen emerging sites belong.
Hi5, an OpenSocial affiliate with 25 million unique users a month, is heavy on international members, particularly the Hispanic market, which is 40 percent of its demographic, said Ramu Yalamanchi, Hi5’s CEO. “The benefit of OpenSocial is to get your application on other networks as well,” he said. “If you want to repurpose it for MySpace, you can do that easily.”
New sites also tout the viral spread of information from one site to the next. But skeptics say users on niche networks keen on that site’s focus aren’t likely to jump around. “I think `viralability’ gets spun a bit,” Acquisti said. In fact, a 2007 InVision study of emerging media by Initiative found that 47 percent of those who visit social networks visit only one site actively.
Plus, going viral isn’t always of value. “Social networks offer consumers the unfettered ability to write what they want,” said Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst at eMarketer.
“Sometimes [they write] about the brand, and sometimes it’s not very good.”
Instead, “a lot of social networks have been embracing letting companies and brands become users of the site where users can choose to be friends with them,”said Leah Culver, founder of Pownce, a social network created in June 2007.
That’s true at Classmates.com. Last quarter, the Renton, Wash.-based company worked with Applebee’s to create a profile for the “talking apple” seen in TV spots. Through the profile, users could engage with videos, photos and a link to Applebee’s site, said Jeremy Helfand, executive vice president and chief sales officer for Classmates.com.
With creative messaging on “profile pages, we see significant increases in response rates.”Helfand said in certain cases the response was ten-fold.
Subtle branding messages are key and a big part of what emerging sites are offering to brands, said Kelly Twohig, senior vice president and digital activation director at Starcom USA.
“Especially in a community environment where the bulk [of content] is provided by users,” Twohig said, “people want it to remain pure.”