Probing Question: Are social networking sites useful for business?

April 2, 2009 By Adam Eshleman

( -- If you’re reading this, odds are you have an Internet connection. And if you have an Internet connection, chances are good that you also have a social network profile. Facebook and Myspace — the two most popular social networks — have more than 285 million users worldwide, and Facebook users collectively spend an average of three billion minutes on that site daily.

With all that traffic, these sites are drawing businesses like moths to streetlights. But how should marketers approach promoting themselves on these new venues?

Cautiously, suggests Arvind Rangaswamy, Penn State marketing professor and research director of the University's Center for Digital Transformation. “In broad terms, I would say businesses should not jump into . They should observe, they should listen, they should participate, they should experiment.”

Dubbed Web 2.0, the second-generation Internet has undergone a metamorphosis, shedding traditional one-way media consumption in favor of user interaction and participation, says Rangaswamy. Social networks are a defining feature of this new model, and conventional marketing "won’t work as well" in this environment. To succeed, he says, businesses need to rethink the way advertising is done.

As an example of innovative marketing, Rangaswamy points to a strategy Burger King employed earlier this year. The company created a Facebook application that produced a free Whopper coupon after a user deleted ten friends from his or her list. “The idea was a Whopper was more valuable than a person’s so-called friends," explains Rangaswamy. "Some people have thousands of friends at Facebook, many of whom they've never met in person, and Burger King was tapping into people’s obsession with social networking.” In eight days, Facebook users traded 240,000 virtual friendship ties for burgers, before Facebook intervened, claiming this campaign undermined the network’s essential purpose: connecting people. “In a way, this marketing strategy was successful because it did get a lot of attention,” observes Rangaswamy. “But since Facebook cut it off, it was ultimately not a successful approach.”

To businesses, the sheer volume of potential consumers makes social networking sites irresistible. "By population count, Facebook and Myspace together are the size of the world's fourth largest country," Rangaswamy notes. Businesses also covet the ease with which they can target specific demographics. Social network users can join a menagerie of groups to connect with people of the same interests, no matter how obscure or absurd. For example, Facebook has more than 500 “I love bacon” groups and even a group for the peanut allergy sufferers of Vancouver. This allows marketers to easily zero-in on target audiences. “Offline,” Rangaswamy notes, “it’s very hard for marketers to find like-minded people — they are all scattered. But using social networks, market research could make it much easier."

Recently, Facebook announced that it is developing software to gauge an individual’s mood based on the language he or she uses in messages to friends on its site. With this information, ads displayed within the Facebook environment could be tailored to fit a user’s specific — and ever-changing — frame of mind, leading to a whole new level of personalized ad content. Just lost your job? An ad for a headhunting firm might be displayed. Got a promotion? You might see an ad for an expensive local restaurant. That’s the micro-level application, explains Rangaswamy. On a macro-level, this technology could potentially measure the sentiment of an entire region or country. “Facebook is a global audience," he notes. “So you can get global sentiments instantly. You can get people’s pulse. It’s something that gives a sense of the trends.”

Other advantages for companies? Customers can post candid commentary on their products or services to businesses’ profile pages. “I think there is potential for social networks to be good feedback mechanisms,” says Rangaswamy. “And right now a lot of people are undervaluing this.” Social networks also give businesses a way to publicly attach themselves to a social cause. “If a company wants to have a 'greener' image, it could join environmental groups on social networking sites and get its name out that way,” he hypothesizes. “That's a good balance to aim for. You’re there but you’re not in people’s faces. You’re participating. You’re not an advertiser, but you’re still advertising, you’re still doing P.R."

However, “people are there to connect with each other and not to connect with marketers," emphasizes Rangaswamy. “In this new environment, marketers have to have a different role. They have to think of themselves as participants and listeners, not as people who are interrupting everybody with messages. It’s a user-controlled medium; it’s not a marketer-controlled medium. That’s why it’s called Web 2.0.”

Provided by Research/Penn State (By Adam Eshleman)

Explore further: Facebook Unveils New Site Design amid Growth Surge

Related Stories

Facebook Adds 'Marketplace' of Classified Ads

May 12, 2007

Facebook members looking to rid themselves of couches, find an apartment or score concert tickets no longer have to leave the confines of the social networking site as Facebook on Friday launched its own classifieds section, ...

Cyber-crooks targeting social-networking websites

March 3, 2009

Computer security specialists warn that Facebook users have been hit with a series of data-stealing attacks in the past week as cyber crooks increasingly stalk social-networking websites.

Recommended for you

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

Rare braincase provides insight into dinosaur brain

October 8, 2015

Experts have described one of the most complete sauropod dinosaur braincases ever found in Europe. The find could help scientists uncover some of the mysteries of how dinosaur brains operated, including their intellectual ...

How much for that Nobel prize in the window?

October 3, 2015

No need to make peace in the Middle East, resolve one of science's great mysteries or pen a masterpiece: the easiest way to get yourself a Nobel prize may be to buy one.

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 03, 2009
Why wouldn't business get stuck in to social networking? The only caution I would suggest is in considering which network is best for your business so your time and efforts aren't wasted.

People are on Facebook to connect with friends and family. They aren't necessarily in the frame of mind to buy, but if you have a consumer brand they may want to be seen to support it amongst their peers. They may connect with you, but they may not engage with you there. Show caution.

MySpace is friendler to businesses, as promotion has always been an element of participation on that site.

Twitter is a great place to add your business and is establishing itself as a useful tool for marketing and customer service. Just be sure you know what your aim is and stick with it.

Business to business companies can find other B2B business people to network with on our site at WeCanDo.BIZ. It offers sales leads and offers help with business problems. Business is already being done on the site.

Ian Hendry

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.