Traffic on social networks is growing, and while marketing models are still evolving, some brands are starting to view those online communities as an integral part of their advertising.
“The killer ad model for social networks is still to be determined,” eMarketer senior analyst Debra Aho Williamson said yesterday at ad:tech San Francisco 2008. “We still haven’t found a Google of social network marketing that’s really going to drive this business. But we’re certainly getting a lot of great experimentation.”
Visitor traffic at the two largest networks grew again in March 2008. Williamson pointed to comScore Media Metrix counts showing that MySpace had 73 million unique U.S. visitors in that month, up 7% from February. Facebook’s traffic grew 9% during the same month to 35.5 million U.S. uniques. That represents strong growth for both networks: 18 months ago, MySpace had 55 million unique U.S. visitors per month, while Facebook stood at 13 million.
And while the median age of members is creeping upward in both networks, a sizeable portion of their audience is still in the 18 to 34 demographic. Eighteen percent of total U.S. Internet users visited Facebook in February, but Williamson pointed out that 41% of users 18-24 in that group visited the site. MySpace got traffic from 37% of all U.S. Internet users during the same month but from 57% of those in the 18-24 age range—and from almost half of all U.S. users 12 to 17 to boot.
Last November eMarketer projected that U.S. social network ad spending would hit $1.6 billion this year, up 75% from 2007, and account for about 6% of total ad budgets. Although eMarketer foresaw social net marketing growing to $2 billion in 2009 and $2.4 billion in 2010, Williamson cautioned that those forecasts might be tempered by a worsening economic downturn.
“For some marketers, [social network marketing] is still experimental, and experimental budgets often do get cut first,” she warned.
But brands such as game maker Electronic Arts and retailer Target Stores have begun to view promotion on social nets as part of their mainstream marketing. In February 2007 EA launched a MySpace contest to build pre-release awareness for the latest version of its “Burnout” racing game. The company ran a search for independent bands in the U.S. and Europe, offering the winner a demo recording contract with Virgin Records and the chance to have their original music featured as part of the videogame’s soundtrack.
EA had run a similar Europe-only contest in 2005 but without involving social networks. This time around, they let bands post to a “Burnout Band Slam” page in MySpace and let visitors vote for their favorite tracks and bands.
“EA used our brand community, which is an offering for advertisers to become an official part of the MySpace experience,” said Chris George, vice president of advertising solutions for Fox Interactive Media, which owns MySpace. “That’s where advertisers can set up shop and host information on MySpace. More importantly, they can bring in users, engage them, take their comments and let them become friends of the profile. The ultimate goal here is to build up your base of brand advocates, arm those guys with information, and then let them take that out to the rest of the community.”
Shawn Conley, EA advertising vice president, said research conducted by the company after the campaign looked at three ways people could encounter and engage with the content of the Burnout Band Slam on MySpace: by being driven to the page themselves by advertising, by embedding its content in their own Web pages to share with others, and by telling friends about it. While a number of visitors came through ads, Conley said, more than 24 times as many were brought to the MySpace site either through recommendations of friends or through widgetized content—what he termed the “momentum effect.”
Although metrics don’t exist to link those visitors directly to game sales, customers were asked how likely they were to buy the game after reaching the MySpace site. Respondents were six times more likely to say they were interested in purchasing if they had heard about the MySpace contest from a friend than if they had navigated directly to the page through an online ad, Conley said.
Retailer Target made its first foray into social network marketing last back to school season with a “Dorm Survival Guide” on Facebook, whish got its start as a community for college students and where collegians still comprise about half the membership.
The Survival Guide was intended to ease new students over the problems of adjusting to dorm living by giving them easy decorating tips, suggested recipes, an interactive game about getting along with roommates, and a social space where incoming students could discuss fears and issues with each other and get advice from returning students. Target consciously took a soft-sell approach to the site; ads it ran elsewhere in Facebook linked to the Survival Guide, not to Target’s broader e-commerce site.
Marketing in social media is less like putting on a scripted show for a passive audience than it is like hosting a party, said Jason Ring, creative director for the Target account at agency AKQA. “You invite people, they express themselves and react to each other, and the party takes on a life of its own,” he said.
As of yesterday, the Target “Dorm Survival Guide” page on Facebook had more than 27,000 users signed up as fans, said Jason Kleckner, information architecture manager for Target, with about 70% of those female and a similar percentage in the 18-34 age range. The site has posted 1,200 comments from visitors; some of these are from Target employees enthusing about their jobs, while others are comments from guests or questions involving specific store operations and issues.
“Right now, we don’t answer those questions,” Kleckner said. “That’s one of the next things we’d like to do.” He added that the retailer has determined that the Facebook campaign did increase back-to-school sales for “a win all round.”
Target’s plans for social network marketing include continuing to improve its current Facebook experience, with a new back-to-college campaign coming later this year, and ongoing efforts to educate its internal team about the value of social media. As a “traditional corporation”, Target has relied on some marketing channels for years and given them a lot of clout in campaign planning, Kleckner said.
“We need to make sure that people also understand the power of social media and that we participate in these spaces responsibly,” he said. “That doesn’t just mean putting our stuff out there but listening to things other people say. Right now we have people asking questions in the back-to-college area, asking if we carry the same futon we had last year, and those questions just sit there. Nobody answers them. There are other companies that do a much better job of handling that. Circuit City, for example, has someone who’s clearly a team member answering questions like that.”
Kleckner blamed this lack of internal awareness of social media best practices for some notable missteps Target has made in social networks over the last year. The Target Rounders program recruited college-age brand advocates to talk up the company within Facebook in return for discounts and incentives. But it came out last December that the company organizing the word of mouth campaign for Target was also advising those advocates to keep their relationship with the retailer “like a secret”.
“A junior-level person at that agency wanted to get her team engaged and just went about it the wrong way,” he said. “It’s not something that we would have done.”
Kleckner added that Target mishandled a blogger’s complaints about a Target billboard campaign in Times Square last winter by responding that the retailer did not respond to comments from non-traditional media outlets. “Which is completely the wrong thing to say,” Kleckner said. “I think it shows that education of the internal team that we need to continue doing. This [social media marketing] isn’t just something that we’re screwing around with anymore, and we need to take the time to do it right.”