The World: Insider's View - Netherlands

Social networking sites offer brands a treasure trove of information, but not in the way you might think, Judith Hordijk writes.

If ever advertisers need persuading of the endless possibilities that Web 2.0 offers, they should look at the social networking site and check out the community there dedicated to the clothes retailer H&M.

What's unique about the H&M network on Hyves isn't its size (although, with 23,000 members, it's the largest on the Dutch version of the site), it's the fact that H&M had nothing to do with its creation. It was Hyves members with an interest in fashion that did it. They send each other messages about their latest purchases. They update each other on forthcoming sales and share opinions about the store on message boards. It's a treasure trove of information for H&M.

Clearly, the internet is changing into a dynamic distribution channel for content, much of it generated by users. Web 2.0 is no longer a passive medium; it has become the hub where young people socialise, share and create.

Hyves understands this development in the same way other social networking sites do. Large communities have developed where people share their passions and interests. The site is continually innovating, offering photo and video sharing and mobile accessibility. Hyvers are highly educated young people with a busy social life. Exactly the kind of people advertisers want but find difficult to target.

The site has 1.3 million members. Two million photos are uploaded each month. And while the site's owners are keen to innovate, it's often the users who determine the direction social networks take.

Social networks realise just how valuable their users are, and they're keen not to flood them with online advertising and irritating pop-up ads. Social network members are ad-literate and take a very dim view of any commercial sabotaging of what they see as their site.

This means social networks need to look for alternative ways to connect users and advertisers. The viral construction of Hyves is valuable for both brands and consumers. It offers the two continuous dialogue - brands know their customers' latest wants and needs, while consumers are able to influence their favourite brands. Many frequent visitors are only too happy to give their opinions on brands with which they have a strong relationship. I wouldn't be surprised if forthcoming H&M collections are developed in collaboration with Hyves members.

Would the H&M community have been such a success had it been created by the retailer? That remains unclear. What brands do know is that there are massive opportunities on social networking sites for them to bond with their admirers. It's just surprising how often it's the consumers that take the initiative and start the dialogue.

- Judith Hordijk is the strategic planner, strategy and intelligence, at Universal McCann Netherlands.