Since I work in the interactive industry, I realized a while back that I need to get interactive. That is, get involved with social networks. So I joined LinkedIn first, before Facebook was open to the public and MySpace was the rage. I thought it would be useful for keeping track of contacts.
When I published my children's book, I created a MySpace page (I thought I HAD to for marketing purposes). And when Facebook became available, I created a profile there as well, as did many of my colleagues.
Since then, I have been invited by friends and work associates to join Bebo, Plaxo and Friendster, as well as niche sites like JacketFlap and Lookybook. I think there might be others -- I've lost track.
But has joining all of these social networks enriched my life or made it any easier?
For the most part, I must say no.
I have used LinkedIn to look up sources for articles and be introduced to a potential writer or two. Plaxo reminded me of a PR person's birthday so I could send a note, probably scoring me a few points with her. Most of the activity on my MySpace page has been posted from a friend of mine in a band, promoting his gigs and TV appearances.
As for Facebook, it just frustrates me. Wanting to be a participant, I've tried to answer questions posted by "friends" and take part in some of the activities offered up to me, such as Likeness surveys and sharing my musical tastes. Every time I try, I end up screaming at my screen -- I take the time to go through the exercise, only to get an error at the end and realize my information hasn't been sent.
Clearly, I'm not the demographic drawn to social networks (although I'm not revealing my age), but I do consider myself pretty technologically savvy and open to new things. Still, I don't get the value of social networks.
People I want to keep in touch with, I keep in touch with -- via email, phone calls, in person (a novel concept, I know). And I don't really need to know that the person who wrote an article for me once last year is walking her dog today or visiting Boston with her boyfriend. That's just too much information.
Okay, social platforms can provide entertainment (when the applications work), I'll concede to that. But are they that useful as a tool?
As I was writing this article and contemplating the answer, Fast Company actually asked a similar question on its blog: "Facebook: More of a toy to use in your leisure time or more of a tool to communicate?"
The comments were varied, ranging from someone saying it's "a toy for the majority of business users at the moment," to someone else providing advice on how to harness Facebook to get feedback from customers. The majority of people who responded, however, said they see the potential of it as a business tool think it's mostly used as a toy at this point.
Speaking of toys, that's how I would classify virtual worlds as well, although to me, they're even less entertaining. After writing an article for iMedia about a virtual world for kids, I thought I'd take my son there. Maybe it just wasn't populated enough yet, but both of us found it extremely boring. His little avatar walked around the room, said a few canned phrases to other seemingly lost avatars, and that was about it. Huh?
So, how should marketers be addressing someone like me in social media? Should they try to engage me from the tool aspect, toy aspect, or somewhere in-between?
Think outside the box
When I talked with some marketers about how they should be advertising to someone (like me) who finds little value in social media, they sympathized with my position and assured me I wasn't alone. But they also challenged me to think outside the box to uncover the value for myself.
"Whenever you need to get something done, ask yourself how you can use each application in a productive way," said Paul Martecchini, VP of advertising, Meraki Networks, Inc. "Think, if I had no choice but to get done what I need to get done through a social network, how would I use it?
"These aren't just about keeping in touch; they provide ways to get your job done better," he added.
For example, LinkedIn is more than just an address book. It's a way to reach out and find people you don't already know through recommendations and referrals. And Facebook can provide a great way to get feedback on an idea, product or service.
In recent days, there as been quite a bit of virtual ink given to how to use social tools, indicating that I indeed am not alone in my lack of understanding (maybe a support group will pop up soon!). Famed marketing blogger Steve Rubel recently used his Micro Persuasion blog to provide insight into how to be productive with new site Friendfeed.
Rubel also featured a post on his blog by Chris Brogan on "How I Use Twitter to Promote My Blog."
Right here in iMedia, Noah Elkin explained how to make business contacts on social media. So as consumers like me start to find ways to appreciate social sites and tools for more than the ability to poke and throw things at friends, marketers need to follow along.
"They need to research how people are using social networks and provide something of value to them," Martecchini said.
What is that person doing in that moment? What is she thinking about? What is she using the social site for -- entertainment or a tool?
Putting it into practice
If a site is merely used as a toy, then sponsoring a quiz or a gadget will serve a marketer well (as long as the application functions properly). But as consumers begin to expand their use of these sites, marketers must expand their thinking.
Here's an example of brands that have thought through the process. A popular activity on social networks is to inquire among "friends" about restaurants or attractions in a city someone will be visiting, be it for business or a personal vacation. So a widget designer created an application called "Where I've been" that enables people to share with others where they've traveled to and offer advice. Trip Advisor saw the value of it and purchased the application. And Orbitz provides the opportunity to purchase airline tickets within it.
"Marketers need to become part of the conversation, and to create value to engage the user," Martecchini said. What they don't need to be doing, he added, is putting up banner ads.
Adam Broitman, director of emerging and creative strategy at Morpheus Media, agreed.
"It is not enough for a marketer to just be present in social networks," he said. "In fact, if presence is all that a marketer is offering, it is destined to fail. Marketers must enter social environments with a value proposition so strong that consumers have no choice but to engage."
According to Broitman, this is easier when it comes to children because they are more responsive to games, free content from their favorite stars or any type of social currency that lets their friends know just how cool they are. For adults, he said, it's a bit tricky, but not impossible.
"Whenever I begin a marketing campaign, I look at my core demographic and ask myself, 'what can I give the people within this group that would make them smile?' The same is true of marketing in social networks," he said.
Consider the following:
- A busy parent indicates to a friend she needs to shop for school supplies. Can I help her by creating a shopping list and beaming it to her phone? Or providing a list of stores that are having sales?
- A single 31-year-old male is looking for love. Can I help him find the perfect match?
- A professional is trying to network with his peers. Can I help create a group where ideas are shared?
John Bates, head of marketing and business development for virtual world Entropia, said the same thinking needs to apply to virtual worlds and games as well. "You can't just put up a billboard," he said. "You have to make a contribution to what's going on."
An example would be sponsoring a new level of a game that's free, downloadable -- and branded.
"If you don't do that in games or virtual worlds, you're likely not getting a return on your investment," Bates said.
Bates suggested someone -- perhaps a financial services company or office supply company -- sponsor a "how to get the most out of Facebook (or LinkedIn or whatever)" on the corresponding site.
Now that is something even I would use -- and value.
If you have any other ideas, please share them in the comments below.
Dawn Anfuso is senior editor.