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Social Networks and what they can and can't do for brands

Elemental Communications (Social Media Portal) - 18 September 2006

Social Networks and what they can and can't do for brands


Social networks can be a valuable tool for brands, but only if companies don’t try and control content


Social Networking is indeed a phenomenon and holds much the same (but more) fascination that reality television once did, and one that will stay with us for the foreseeable future.  Photograph, Rachel Hawkes, account director, ElementalSo, with the changing face of the Internet, how should brands get involved?  Many argue that it’s too dangerous a proposition; it can’t be controlled and is therefore an investment with too high a risk.  There is indeed an element of truth to that statement, however let me share with you a few recent findings from Ofcom’s Annual Communications Report:

  • Over 70% of 16 – 24’s have visited a social networking site
  • Over 50% of 16 – 24’s visit a social networking site on a weekly basis
  • Over 40% of over 24’s have visited a social networking site
  • Almost 40% of young adults contribute content whilst only 14% of all other age groups post material online
  • Almost one fifth of young adults have their own website or blog

Nowhere else can you gather such a broad spectrum of people in one space, and if you are marketing to youth in particular if you are not getting involved online you are missing a trick or ten.  It is human nature to want to feel important, Social Networking allows users to express this desire by making them feel they are part of something new and special (in as far as content rather than the idea itself goes).

According to Neilson / Netratings, the ten most popular social networking sites -- MySpace, Blogger, Classmates Online, YouTube, MSN Groups, AOL Hometown, Yahoo! Groups, MSN Spaces, Six Apart Typepad, and Xanga.com, which collectively reached an audience of 68.8 million in the U.S. during the month of April, an increase of 22 million over April 2005.

MySpace is by far the most popular, and a few interesting facts to puts its enormous influence into perspective:

  • MySpace signs over 250,000 new users every day
  • In April 2006, Nielsen NetRatings recorded 38.4 million unique visitors to MySpace, which was a 8.2 million increase in a twelve month period
  • MySpace has over 80 million users
  • Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought MySpace in July 2005 for $580 million USD (£304 million)
  • In August 2006, Google signed a $900 million USD deal (£472 million), alienating Microsoft and Yahoo! in the process (a post Yahoo! held previously)

Interestingly though, that up and coming star Bebo didn’t make Neilson’s list, Bebo boasts a 25 million user audience is made up primarily of under 18’s is arguably more popular in the UK than any of its competitors.

So, taking into consideration all of the above – is it more of a risk to get involved or to stand back?  There are many examples of brands that have started down the latter path only to double back a short time later, probably the most classic example of this is Coca-Cola.

It almost felt like you couldn’t pick up any Newspaper for a month afterwards without reading a story about the Mentos / Coca-Cola fountain, for those that were living in a bubble when that quite literally exploded a quick recap:  By adding a few Mentos lollies into a bottle of soda (preferably Coke and preferable Diet), it causes a chemical re-action that results in a very high liquid fountain.  It was a hit with Internet users all over the World, and it was not long (literally!) before thousands of home made videos of the same experiment sprouted up on video hosting sites like YouTube and dedicated Websites.

It’s important to note that this was an independent experiment concocted by a Juggler and a Lawyer.  Mentos’ reaction should be applauded; they were quick to react and became the official sponsors of the original video which has since reported an estimated value of over $10 million USD in media spend across America.  So, what did Coca-Cola have to say?  It hoped that “people want to drink Diet Coke more than try experiments with it,” needless to say it was unpopular reaction with the online community and they took a lot of flack over it.  Interestingly enough, Coca-Cola are now in the process of developing an online community (to be hosted by them) where they will incentivise visitors to make a film on a chosen subject every month with prizes for the best videos.  The general consensus online?  That Coca-Cola are happy to get involved so long as they can control what happens and by whom, which only stood to further antagonise the very audience they are trying to connect with.


There are many great examples of brands taking a proactive stand in social networking, some of the more notable campaigns are:

  • adidas’ MySpace page during the World Cup
  • AOL’s “/discuss”
  • Dove’s “Real Beauty”
  • Nike’s “Joga Bonito”
  • Wal-Mart’s “The Hub”

Yes, there is an element of risk involved in social networking for brands, however what is said online is said offline – the difference with it being online is you can make yourself aware of what is being said and by whom and there is a fantastic opportunity to plug in and review, react and engage.  But, it’s not always done right.  Take Agency.com and their pitch for the Subway account for example.  They had the brilliant (sic) idea of videoing their pitch and releasing it onto YouTube in an effort to make it viral and demonstrate their expertise in the field to their prospective clients.  It bombed, with comments like “OMG (oh my god) are they that desperate...” and “Wow, that was awful. I'm embarrassed for them” but has been viewed on YouTube alone by almost 100,000 people with many spoofs also appearing.

And then there was the unintentional social networking superstar… Microsoft.  Ricky Gervais and his writing partner Steve Merchant did two videos depicting Ricky’s character from The Office for an internal project at Microsoft on the proviso that the videos, called “The Office Values” were never to be released outside of Microsoft.  For three years, that’s exactly what happened but then they mysteriously appeared on the Internet for anyone and everyone to view.  They have since been removed from the more popular sites like YouTube and iFilm, but once something is out into the world wide web its almost impossible to control and retract.  Funnily enough, Microsoft has been praised for the videos, in which they poke fun at themselves and have been applauded by a typically anti-massive-corporation audience for bringing a human-side back to the conglomerate.

In the world of Social Networks, what is popular today (a Blog, a site, a video and so on) may not be tomorrow, it can be compared (albeit somewhat loosely) to the hottest bar in town – it only remains popular so long as the cool people hang out there.  So any brand wanting to get involved in social networking, must do so thoughtfully and with total respect for the advertising-sensitive audience.  It’s about being involved, there is massive, massive potential here for brands but they must understand that they can not control.  Influence, create awareness to kick-start and steer debate and interest to engage audiences, yes.  Control, no.

There is stability with the main providers in this arena in the tools that are made available to individuals, but fickle audiences dominate what is vibrant and what is not, therefore what has a shelf life or not.  The success of brand driven communities is varying with no real evidence of longevity and influential impact upon audiences.  Based upon this, the most prudent course of action is to present the means for audiences to receive content polished or raw and let them take it where they wish.  Let Social Networking do what it does best; allow audiences to be creative in their own environment and dictate the methods in which it’s shared.

Brands need to remain flexible if they are going to get involved in this evolving medium, because it is exactly that; evolving.  To invest heavily in a page dedicated to your brand on MySpace or Bebo would be like putting all your eggs in one basket.  As more and more brands try to cash in on this form of marketing more and more of their audience will move on to new locations if they feel they are invaded and advertised too.

On a final note, you can create an enormous buzz for your brand, product or service in the Social Networking environment, but if you fail to live up to the hype it doesn’t matter what kind of success you had online, it won’t be transferred to the bank balance – just ask the makers of Samuel L Jackson’s latest movie, Snakes on a Plane.

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