Andrew Walmsley on Digital: A point of social etiquette
A view from Andrew Walmsley

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: A point of social etiquette

Social networking is not the same as social networks - a difference that brands ignore at their peril

Can big brands crash the social networking party? It's a question that is taxing digital specialists and brand managers alike. With more than 200m users, Facebook is a media phenomenon, and alongside MySpace, Bebo, Orkut, Hi5 and Cyworld, some estimates put the number of people using these sites at half a billion worldwide. Not surprisingly, with all those conversations going on, marketers want to jump aboard, and pronto.

A research project by Workplace Media, a US ad agency that specifically targets people while at work, set out to answer this question, and in doing so fell victim to the most common mis­conception there is about social media.  

The study examined US employees' use of social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace. It found that 55% of office internet users said they have an account on one of these sites, and of these, 43%, admitted to accessing that account from work. Lastly, the report claims 78% use these sites for less than 30 minutes a day.

I'm a bit sceptical about asking people about how much time they bunk off work and expecting an accurate answer, but I can live with this methodology.

However, it all goes pear-shaped in the final section.  Stephanie Molnar, chief executive of WorkPlace Media, says: ‘The data shows that social networking still has a long way to go...Most of our meaningful recommen­dations continue to be old-fashioned word of mouth from friends, co-workers, and/or family.' So here we are. Here it is. ‘Social networking' is not the same as ‘social networks'.  

People do what we describe as
social networking in a variety of environments: blogs, forums, review sites and, yes, social networks.

What they do in these environments varies widely. On TripAdvisor or Reevoo, they write or read reviews. On forums, they discuss hobbies and interests, which often means they're talking about brands. On social networks, they are mostly hooking up with friends - although some sites are aimed at work-related activity.

WorkPlace Media's survey has looked at one subset of the vast phenomenon we know as social networking, and drawn a conclusion from it that has then been applied universally.

Let's look at the survey's numbers.  96% of respondents claimed not to be influenced by a brand's lack of presence in social networks. Setting aside the fact that every survey ever conducted on advertising has shown consumers claim not to be influenced by it, if a brand doesn't have a Facebook page, that might not be an issue. If a brand doesn't respond to criticism in forums, however, consumers reported they thought worse of it, as Kryptonite Locks and Dell Computers discovered.

A mere 11% said they followed a brand in a social network. This doesn't mean a brand can't interact meaningfully with consumers through social networking, as Nike+ and Lego do with hundreds of thousands of users.

Lastly, just 12% of the survey's
respondents reported that their opinion of a brand changes if that brand maintains a social networking presence. What is a ‘presence'? There are thousands of bandwagon-jumping Facebook pages out there, but that isn't a ‘presence' - it's tokenism.

Social network sites aren't built for brands, they're built for people. Brands can build meaningful presences, but success is driven by remembering that they do not have an automatic right to be there. Social networking is a vibrant and fertile area for brands, and offers established ways of engaging with consumers. However, not distinguish­ing between the two means whatever you do is almost bound to fail.

Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 seconds on Workplace Media

  • Workplace Media was founded in 1988 by US marketer Tim McCarthy.
  • It is a national media company that ‘focuses solely on helping marketers reach the working consumer'.
  • Its mission statement is ‘to connect advertisers, employers and at-work consumers together in a way that delights everyone'.
  • The ‘Continuum of Delivery Excellence', which includes information on ‘process flow, quality control, validation and auditing', is a tool for marketers to determine which of WorkPlace Media's several programmes would offer the best ROI.
  • According to chief executive Stephanie Molnar, ‘WorkPlace Media has not only pioneered the workplace marketing trend, it is now setting the trend on how advertisers interact with consumers, period.'
  • It claims to be able to reach 920,000 businesses, which represent 64m US consumers. Its client list includes Subway, Goodyear, Denny's, Arby's and Ruby Tuesday.