It used to be there was one sure bet for reaching teens online: Instant Messaging (IM) programs. According to Pew Internet & American Life Project, 75 percent of all online teens use IM to communicate, making it a popular choice for media planners and buyers eager to target this influential consumer group. Marketers know platforms like AOL's AIM have some of the highest conversion rates in the business. Consequently, they have made IM placements an integral part of their youth-centric campaigns.
But what if you presented this audience segment with another way to stay in touch, and framed it with content, tools and applications that users could employ to better express themselves through text and pictures? Would IM still have the same appeal?
That's the question interactive marketers are asking as we watch the rise of social networking sites. Media planners and buyers need to be aware of developments within the online social space in order to gauge how and where their target audience is consuming online media. With social networks so popular among teens, you can't help but wonder if one is slowly supplanting the use of the other.
Earlier this year, Pew reported that 55 percent of all online Americans aged 12 to 17 now use social networks. Hitwise says the market share of visits to the top 20 social networks increased by 11.5 percent from January to February, with category traffic up 87 percent compared with last year.
At the core of many of these properties is a communication tool, like web-based email or the ability to cross-post messages on other users' site pages. Although real-time communication isn't guaranteed as users need not be online to receive a message, MySpace and Facebook both offer messaging-type features that display users' comments to their network of "Friends," along with an email-like tool for a private correspondence.
Facebook users also can use a third method to keep others aware of their activity; the site recently partnered with second-generation IM service Twitter to enable users of both platforms to feed their Twitter activity updates directly into their Facebook profile pages.
Just in case these features aren't enough to engage consumers, some social networks are offering traditional instant messaging tools as well, including MySpace with its MySpaceIM, launched in 2006. The plan appears to be to provide internet users with all the tools they could possibly need to stay in touch with their friends, all under one roof.
So far, there hasn't been a substantial decline in IM audience across the "big three" providers, AOL, Yahoo! and MSN, as a result. Trend data pulled from Nielsen//NetRatings NetView for the past 13 months shows a net decline in Instant Messaging usage of 2 million unique users from May of last year to May of 2007: 79 million to 77 million. If a shift is underway, it isn't seismic at this point. Given the IM players' massive install base, a loss of 2 million unique users doesn't necessarily send up any red flags.
However, when you consider the rapid increase in usage of social networks and the messaging tools they offer, it's likely only a matter of time before "traditional" IM providers feel some effect. Since August of last year, MySpaceIM usage has almost doubled from 19 million to 36 million.
One factor that may work in favor of IM providers is that the messaging options available through social networks don't always allow for private correspondence, but instead publicly display comments on bulletin boards and virtual walls. As much time as they spend on social sites, teens may ultimately still rely on IM for the bulk of their private communication, so social networks might affect IM usage, but not audience overall.
In actuality, it's still too early to know whether social networks are drawing users away from IM. But it isn't too soon for planners and buyers who rely on standard IM advertising for campaigns targeting teens to take a serious look at social media. Both networking mediums are typically inexpensive, offer efficient reach, and complement each other, particularly for word-of-mouth-oriented campaigns. One may supersede the other in the long run, but for now, they're still friends.
John Gray is VP of interactive marketing at Enlighten. .