Social networking sites are today’s Internet juggernaut — too big a force to ignore.
Millions of people are gravitating to social networking sites such as MySpace, Blogger and Facebook, at a time when other types of media are struggling for big numbers.
According to the Wall Street Journal (citing Comscore.com data), Blogger.com had 142 million visitors during September 2007, while Windows Live Spaces had 119 million, MySpace had 107 million, and Facebook had 73 million.
With those kinds of numbers, marketers are sure to follow. However, many marketers will tell you –some publicly and others privately — that the jury is still out on whether marketing on social networking sites will pay off.
Some marketers are participating in social media in order to build brand awareness. Often these are large-company brands. From their perspective, having the brand be seen and recognizable by certain audiences at those social networking sites is what’s most important.
As small business owners, we’d be out of business if we used mega-corporation marketing campaigns as our model. Branding campaigns typically are a luxury we cannot afford.
Most of us in small businesses invest only in marketing that is likely to yield quantifiable returns in the form of sales. Return on investment (ROI) is top of mind for us.
So instead of looking at the mega-corporation branding efforts on social networking sites, I looked around for other examples. One model I found is that of online retailers and eCommerce sellers. They tend to expect a direct connection between marketing and dollars in the cash register.
The interesting thing is, they too are participating in social media. However, in their case, the return on investment to date is unclear — and they know it. Yet they still are participating anyway, as a recent Internet Retailer article notes:
At this point, most are doing so without knowing exactly what they’ll get out of it or how it might eventually track to sales. And that is a departure for some in an Internet environment where retailers have become used to calculating their precise return on any online marketing investment.
“We’re in a nebulous phase of Internet marketing right now,” says Dustin Robertson, Backcountry.com’s vice president of marketing. “We’re going from all of those things you did to drive traffic in 2002 — paid search, affiliates, e-mail. They were measurable. You could hone and refine them. But it’s been honed and refined to death. If we want to leapfrog and get another revolution going, we have to keep moving with the Internet.”
So if the ROI is unclear for eCommerce sellers to participate in social media sites, then why are they doing it?
Partly because it’s inexpensive, so the risk is not that great.
And partly it is because of a sense that with things changing, they have to experiment and keep trying to figure out how to best market in today’s changing environment. Staying the same is not an option. It’s a brave new world out there on the Internet today.
For those of us who are small business owners, we should be taking a page out of the eCommerce sellers’ book. We too should be doing low-cost experimentation with social networking — even if the return is not yet clear.
Certainly one social networking technique — setting up a blog — has shown good ROI for quite a few small businesses. You can tell that from the testimonials you find at every turn about blogs being responsible for new business.
Beyond blogging, the results are not nearly as clear. Sites like MySpace and Facebook may not drive sales for many businesses. If you have a Web 2.0 startup or are a musician or have a product that appeals to the youth market, then such sites can be a gold mine. For the rest of us, social media sites could be just an ugly old strip mine.
The point is, we don’t yet know.
But I do know this: I have seen the pace of change in the online world accelerate over the past 12 months, and the social networking trend continue to grow. That leads me to believe that we small businesses should be experimenting — in low-cost, low-risk ways — with social networking sites.
To whatever extent we can spare, say, 15% of a staffer’s time (preferably someone who loves being online and already participates in social networking), or perhaps devote some time of our own in the evenings, or even set aside a small budget for an outside marketing firm, we should be out in the trenches trying to figure out our place in this new online world. Don’t bet the farm on it, but don’t ignore it either.