Engaging Valuable Social Networkers

SAN FRANCISCO On the last day of June, the big topic among young women on the MySpace page for the Victoria’s Secret Pink brand were the magazine coupons for free Pink flip-flops that could be found in Cosmo and Seventeen.

Exclamations about specifics of the giveaway of $14 sandals with any Pink purchase traveled so fast that a few days later a Victoria’s Secret clerk posted a comment asking for details because her customers knew more about the promotion than she did. Pink’s other MySpace friends were quick to oblige within minutes.

The power of online social networks can invigorate any marketing program, such as the flip-flop giveaway, if only marketers can recognize and properly connect with the most important networkers, say analysts at Forrester Research.

But among all the consumers who use online social sites such as MySpace and Facebook, who are the most valuable to marketers? Conventional wisdom suggests it would be preteen and teen users who have grown up with the knack of making friends via the Internet.

But a new study by Forrester says daily users—both teens and adults—are far more interested in marketing profiles than the under-18 set that uses the sites a few times a week or less. The study, “How Consumers Use Social Networks,” released June 21, goes on to explain how marketers can efficiently connect with this receptive group of consumers. According to study author Charlene Li, when it comes to social networking, smart marketers such as Victoria’s Secret know that traditional Web marketing practices go out the window.

The study cites three best practices:

First, use marketing venues on social networking sites as places where friends can develop a relationship with your brands. Encourage users to talk about their latest purchases and download promotional badges to put on their own sites. Victoria’s Secret offers Pink-related photos to download and provides branded backgrounds for consumers to use when designing their own MySpace sites. Other, more common Web site features are a waste of time, including streaming video, online games and interactive contests. They “fall flat on networking sites,” states the study.

Second, encourage “friending” by users. Pink asks users to be friends and post their pictures and comments on the Pink site. It has more than 200,000 friends in MySpace and more than 300,000 friends in Facebook, “which means the Pink logo is on 500,000 user profiles,” said Li. “For these consumers, being a VSP fan is part of their online identity,” she said.

Third, refresh your content. Keep adding features, information and interaction to engage the fans of the brand. Victoria’s Secret, for instance, constantly posts new content and photos about celebrity parties, new merchandise and promotions, said Li. Brands too often make the mistake of treating social network marketing as a channel, she added. “They don’t understand the ethos of networking. These people want to communicate regularly with the brand and with each other,” Li said.

The Forrester study notes that of teen and preteen users who visit MySpace and Facebook, 60-70 percent visit the sites at least once a day. Of the adults who visit the venues, more than 40 percent of them check in at least once a day, says the study.

The sweet spot for marketers is that pool of everyday visitors, regardless of the age, according to Li. Almost half of the daily adult networks say they are interested in seeing marketer profiles on the sites. About one-third of the daily youth users are equally interested in marketer profiles. By contrast, sporadic networkers (who visit the networking sites three times a week or less) are less brand friendly—they are half as likely to be interested in marketers’ profiles, says the study.

What are the characteristics of this marketing-friendly group of daily online networkers? They read blogs and write their own blogs more often than non-daily users, and are “naturally viral”, with most telling their friends about favorite products, says the study. For pro-marketing adults the average age is 33, half are men, their average household income is $65,000 and they have slightly less education than non-daily networkers. Among the youth group, slightly more are female and 60 percent called themselves “natural leaders,” says the study.

Li said companies who want to go beyond MySpace and Facebook can get a taste of the future of online networking by examining emerging social network sites such as Bebo and Hi5 for young adults and Picozo for girls 13-15.

In summary, research shows marketers can use online social networks to find and focus on consumers who are very interested in making relationships with their brands. The key to making this strategy work is to interact with this receptive group in a social and generous way, without static, one-sided messages.