Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Importance Of Online Social Networking

Tuesday, December 13, 2005
The Importance Of Online Social Networking
By Tom Hespos

Traveling to and from the iMedia Summit in La Quinta, Calif. last week, I noticed something that my fellow attendees had in common. Whether on the plane, hanging out between sessions or riding in the van to the airport, many of them seemed to be reading the same BusinessWeek article with fascination. The article was called "The MySpace Generation" and it was the cover story of last week's edition.

In it, the authors described the throngs of teens who are plugged into social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, Buzz-Oven.com and others. The article seemed like a wake-up call to anyone unaware of how online social networking sites serve as an amplifier for the activities and daily lives of teens. It shone the spotlight on the teen audience visiting social networking sites, but by and large the piece was about marketing and tapping into the teen audience. I finally got around to finding a copy of the magazine (my computer had crashed) and reading it on the flight home.

Of course the article described how companies were using social networks to reach their target audiences. Some approaches were considered successful, while others were completely lame. Scratch that. Let me rephrase. Some approaches were deemed successful when evaluated like a traditional promotion, while others were so lame that they made Carrot Top look cool by comparison.

When I finished the article, the first thing that went through my head was that my colleague Jim Meskaukas' notion of Flow Experience Marketing has never been more critical to understand than it is right now. It is no coincidence that the first comments on BusinessWeek's site in response to the eye-opening article were people lamenting corporate intrusion into social networks and the Internet in general. They're saying such things because corporate America still thinks, by and large, that ads need to be interruptive in order to be effective. How long will it be before these companies figure out that one doesn't need to plaster the Internet with pop-up ads to be perceived as interruptive?

If I had to identify an approach to social network marketing that managed to get a passing grade in the article, it would be Coca-Cola's. The dollars the company pumped into Buzz-Oven, were generally treated like sponsorship dollars in that they underwrote Buzz-Oven sampler CDs. At least Coke cares about what members of its target audience are into and they're willing to underwrite it. The most interruptive thing about the approach might have been the Coca-Cola logo on the CD itself, which, however, was not entirely objectionable.

Probably the worst approach I read about in the BusinessWeek article was Procter & Gamble's attempt to launch a social network of its own, using one of its products as a focal point. What led P& G executives to believe a body spray could be used as a foundation for a social network is anybody's guess, but I bet it elicited some giggles among the brand managers over at Axe. While the folks at Axe extended value to their customers by providing entertainment in the form of Web shorts, relying on social networks and IM to spread the word, P&G thought people would enjoy linking to "fake characters named for scents like Rose and Vanilla."

The difference, of course, is an understanding of flow experience marketing. Trying to get someone to link to a fake character in order to extend a marketing message is interruptive and contrary to what a social network is all about in the first place (cultivating relationships with real people). Providing people with material they can spread via social networks if they want to is consistent with the flow experience.

When we seek to leverage community in order to give our brands a boost, our brands must be respectful of the community, in part by avoiding the temptation to work against its purpose. Don't take my word for it. Read the comments at the end of the BusinessWeek article to see how people from social networking sites hate being conned by fake characters or otherwise having their online experience interrupted.

Tom Hespos is President, Underscore Marketing LLC.


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