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Advertisers Connect In New Ways On Networking Sites

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With more than 90 million members, MySpace is one of the most intriguing sites on the Web for advertisers. But most are looking to it and other social networks as much more than a place to put messages in front of consumers.

When it comes to run-of-the-mill banner ads, agencies report low response rates. Yet many are finding social media is fertile ground for a potentially more valuable purpose: building viral- driven, two-way communication with consumers.

The clearest manifestation of this is the growing popularity of brand profiles. Nearly every movie released these days has an accompanying MySpace page, where users can choose to be "friends" with, for example, Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell's character in the upcoming Talladega Nights. Over 25,000 have already done so.

Such profile pages started with entertainment companies, but are spreading to other brands, some of which give users enticements to connect. Dodge Caliber offers fans animated shorts. Burger King gave its friends free 24 downloads.

Similarly, Honda's MySpace page for the Element ran a user-created wallpaper contest that attracted thousands of entries and let members share wallpaper—something they were not able to do previously. The Honda Element now has 43,000 friends, and its agency, RPA, plans additional promotions via the profile in the fall.

"When we think about how people in this demographic connect, it's through social networking," said Meridee Alter, RPA svp and media director. "We gave them the opportunity to do something that was relevant to their experience."

Such programs, said Fox Interactive Media's new chief revenue officer, Michael Barrett, hold the possibility of going beyond advertising and finally delivering on the Web's promise to deliver one-to-one relationships between brands and consumers. "That was the huge vision of the early 1990s, and it's coming to fruition," he said.

That's the approach Adidas is taking. The sportswear giant is leaning on its roster of soccer stars to turn fans into brand ambassadors, offering everything from wallpaper to videos, and creating MySpace profiles for stars like Zinedine Zidane. "We're ultimately handing over the keys of our campaign and allowing our consumers to extend and adapt it to their needs," said Simon Atkins, director of marketing communications.

MySpace is not alone in pushing advertisers to think differently. Facebook urges them to view its site as a source of research into how its college-age audience thinks about their brands.

"One of the things we're finding is reach itself isn't that interesting," said Mike Murphy, vp of media sales at Facebook. Instead, the site is tapping its trove of user data to steer members toward advertiser-sponsored communities. It's also giving advertisers research data that can be used in developing their marketing programs. For instance, Facebook can provide breakdowns of what other brands, books or movies users are passionate about. "We found that for us to be out schlepping banners in this space doesn't make much sense," Murphy said.

Yet some advertisers complain that the metrics and targeting at social networks remain rudimentary. A report on a MySpace brand profile gives the number of members, as well as some geographic and gender data, but not "social metrics," such as the micro-networks of those who joined the brand network, according to Mark Kingdon, CEO of Omnicom Group's Organic. "Basic things like network-effect measures don't exist," he said.

MySpace is working to improve its targeting and reporting capabilities, Barrett said, hoping to create a type of ad that's closer to dialogue. "If we get that right," he said, "it takes Web 1.0 marketing to the Web 2.0 phase. That's the promise."