Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Social networking marketing

There's currently a discussion on social networking going on on the Auckland Linux User's group mailing list.

One of the  posters pointed out that he can write emails to whoever he chooses without having his conversation censored or being data-mined.

Of course you can do this, you can also create a website to broadcast your views to the world such as this blog, but getting an audience is difficult. Before you can email someone you need to know their email address and have some way of knowing that they will want to hear from you. When you create a blog it is always hit-or-miss that people will ever read your words.

To me the real strength of social networking is that it is an updated (more controlled) descendant of what Usenet was beforw it was spammed to death. There you had a large number of small communities of interest that were each composed of people who were all drawn together by a shared desire to discuss a single subject. People who were interested in a dozen subjects joined 12 groups. Usenet was different in that the available topics were coordinated by the server managers, but this coordination was mainly to ensure that there was sufficient interest to merit distributing them while social networking allows people to dynamically generate their own communities of interest.

Social networking covers a range of different techniques, but ultimately it is all about introductions. Referrals from person to person as in Linkedin or of ideas by rebroadcasting interesting posts as happens in Google Reader and Twitter create some quite interesting interpersonal dynamics for the distribution of information. People I know almost nothing about in any meaningful sense point out interesting pieces of information, and by implication point out the sources (direct or intermediate) of that information. Sometimes I not only read the information someone pointed at but also add the author to my personal list of people worth hearing  from(1).

As social networking appears more trustworthy than random surfing (I'm not sure why, but it feels so), marketers desperately want to access this network of trust to promote their products. Small time operators are attempting to flood the channels in the same way that they destroyed usenet and freely published email addresses, but so far the organic nature of these networks where people follow based on recommendation, seem to reduce their effectiveness. Look for the spammers to try harder and harder(2) and try to deply technology to break through the protections. Ultimately deflecting the spammers is the shared responsibility of the users and social networking system owners and it requires a lot of vigilance by the providers of the social networking sites. If they are under capitalised so they can't afford to monitor their systems or simply choose to adopt a laissez faire approach to marketing on their servers I feel they will ultimately gain a reputation for spam-hell and  lose out to those who do have the resources and the will to maintain their systems.

There are people who do manage to market effectively on social networking sites, and they aren't doing it by flooding our inboxes with constant repetition of low quality deals. They do it by offering helpful tips in their chosen field and if they do any actual selling it is infrequent and low key. They are smart enough to realise that their best move is to make themselves authorities in their chosen fieldsand gain a large number of followers so people approach them when they need something in their area. Of course having a large number of followers means that a lot of people actually read their occasional marketing messages.

It will be interesting to see if the small-time marketers can learn some discipline and the big companies can learn to speak to people not at them and engage an audience. History suggests neither group will.

1) It can even work for self published sites - I follow Bruce Schneier's blog which largely consists of pointers to security articles he found interesting, he's one of the world's top security experts so his choices are good ones, but Schneier's blog doesn't scale in the same way that social networks do.

2) Even when a marketer has something useful to say, such as product support or genuine product news, they seem to lack control and discipline and end up driving watchers away by the sheer volume of posts they produce

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