With a marketing hat on I look at the latest social networking usage figures and find it hard not to salivate. Facebook has more than 400m active users, and more than 500bn minutes per month are spent by users online. Reinforcing the impression, Twitter has over 100m users, growing by 300,000 per day. On average there are 55m tweets per day. YouTube is the same, both growing and retaining users at an impressive rate. The figures are truly extraordinary.
Social networks succeed for a simple reason; the principle that binds them together is based on conversation and interaction. While this may sound great for us personally, for marketers it's a major problem.
Many brands have tried and failed to introduce bare-faced marketing offers to their social network followers, and classic examples of companies getting it wrong come from almost every point of the business spectrum. The core problem is anything seen as blatant advertising sticks out like a sore thumb and is likely to either be at best ignored, or at worst, ridiculed.
The way to engage with people is to be interesting and interactive. But doing this implies individual interactions, and this is where a lot of advice on marketing to social networks falls down: failing to understand the problems of scale. It's true that you could gain a vast number of followers on Twitter, a huge group of friends on Facebook and possibly huge numbers might join your fan page. But why would they bother?
Taking all of this into account, here are some things not to do:
Don't try to reel in the moon
You may have heard many tales about how someone put together a video in their front room, posted it on YouTube, tweeted the link and then got a million hits. You will hear about companies that invented a person whose online Facebook diary was followed by hordes, all anxious to hear what creative genius was behind it. It's true that you might achieve this by producing something that truly goes viral, but by definition only a very small number of people can succeed at this. Very little has a true wow factor, so very little (relatively) gets passed on to friends. It's a million to one shot.
Don't shove your marketing down people's throats
Social networking is about participation and interaction. So the quickest way to build a reputation is to crassly promote yourself, but the reputation that results won't be what you wanted. Instead, whenever anyone searches on your name, they will find a torrent of abuse explaining what a bad company and person you are.
Don't put too much work in
Much of the advice on social networking is about helping out and building relationships. But you should be ruthless in assessing the ratio between return and reward. Participating in social networking isn't a good idea because it's trendy - it makes good business sense only when it's profitable.
Don't ignore advertising
Just because consumers use social networks for free, doesn't mean that the networks aren't interested in revenue. They have to make a living somehow, and their plan is that this will come from you, the business participant. The most likely route for producing results on social networks is to advertise on them.
Facebook advertising allows pay-per-click or pay-per-impression. You decide how much to bid for each ad, and you can select on demographics that include age, sex, education, relationship status, location and interests -- it's all highly targeted. You can include an image in the advert as well as text. There's one case study where Facebook advertising cost only 1.5% of revenue generated, but that's likely to be the best possible result. Get it right, though, and you may have a Google on steroids on your hands.
Don't ignore feedback from your customers
It's all too easy to look at social networking as a marketing channel, but there's another side too. You need to monitor major networks for any discussion of your company. That way, you may be able to pick up service issues both before they are broadcast too widely and before they become a big problem. In fact, what seems like a negative can become a positive.
And if customers make the effort to review your product/service on your site, don't forget to give them an opportunity to share the comments by having Twitter and Facebook 'widgits' each of your pages.