Brands must adapt to thrive in new socialnetworks

Peter Friedman says he is taking advertising back to its roots. Which seems odd coming from someone who honed his marketing skills in Silicon Valley, admits to e-mailing his son even when they are in the house together and has you wondering if anything lighter than a crowbar could part him from his laptop.

Friedman is in London this week talking to agencies and clients in the wake of the newly announced joint venture between LiveWorld, the company he helped found and which has become one of the catalysts of the boom in social networking sites, and WPP.

Rest assured his sales pitch will have left many listeners wondering how to get a word in edgeways, such is its pace and passion. But Friedman, 51, who chose to join Apple rather than pursue his original aim of becoming a hotshot Madison Avenue manager, comes across as neither a nerd nor an anorak. And what he says merits serious consideration by agencies still trying to separate the communication superhighways of the future from the cul-de-sacs.

Are social network sites the way to go? Some believe the jury is still out. Friedman, whose company operates and manages such sites, considers the case is already proven beyond reasonable doubt. A seismic shift in consumer behaviour is taking place, he claims, and if brands are to flourish within it, they need to look to the past.

Consider how brands found fame in the days when advertising barely existed, he suggests. It was through word-of-mouth. Now technology, which for so long isolated people, is allowing that to happen again. That is down to the internet, now an essential part of the fabric of life for almost everyone.

For word-of-mouth, read "virtual communities" often comprising millions of members empowered to confer huge benefits upon brands they like - and to inflict serious damage on those they do not.

Of course, it is easy to get swept along on the technological tide. Like Mark Twain's death, reports of the demise of mass media advertising have been exaggerated. Provided it is well-crafted and correctly targeted, its power to persuade remains formidable.

However, the rules of engagement are different when brands start knocking on the doors of the social networks. For a start, they are uninvited guests in a private club, so they had better mind their manners. As one agency planning director rightly points out: "The brands we represent there are no more than peers in the conversation. This is a creative space for engagement, not a media space for messages."

If brands do behave themselves and have something interesting to say, the results can be startling. An outstanding example is Dove, which extended its "campaign for real beauty" into the social networking arena by setting up a site that allowed women to talk about themselves and their relationships.

Meanwhile, Campbell's Soups struck a chord when it set up a recipe exchange via LiveWorld. So popular did it become that when the company invited 40,000 participants to give their views on its new-formula mushroom soup, 10 per cent responded. Friedman claims that in 20 years as a marketer he has never seen a take-up to match it.

All well and good. But you can bet that for every successful initiative by a brand to live through the voice of its customers there will be a netful of own goals. They are inevitable as social networking matures and companies learn how to use it. For some, Friedman suggests, this will not be an altogether pleasant experience, as customers tell them things they may not want to hear.

It seems clear that social networks are here to stay. Partly because, by linking with LiveWorld, WPP has brought legitimacy to the category, but mainly because online has become a way of life for today's teens and twentysomethings. Like Friedman, middle age will still see them tied to their keyboards.

- Claire Beale is away.