Social networking sites: onwards and upwards?
I'm intrigued at how social networking sites are going to develop. With MySpace adding over a million new subscribers every week, and recent research showing that visits to online community sites are growing rapidly, where is it all going? Is this a trend that will carry on growing?
In the beginning, the appeal of sites like MySpace, Pizco and Bebo were the ability for anyone to put up their own site, share it with their friends and make new friends along the way. At least that's how it used to be. Now there are a host of examples of bands, filmmakers and consumer product marketers using sites like MySpace to launch new products and services to targeted communities.
The New York Times recently carried a feature on "the millennials", meaning those born between 1980 and 2000. By 2010, they will outnumber both baby boomers and Gen-Xers among those 18 to 49 -the crucial consumers for all kinds of businesses, from automakers and clothing companies to Hollywood, record labels and the news media.
The NYT referred to the "group mentality" of this group. "We think that the single largest differentiator in this generation from previous generations is a the social network that is people's lives, the part of it that technology enables," said Jack McKenzie, a senior vice president at Frank N. Magid Associates.
What this means is that word-of-mouth (or e-mail, or whatever) is more influential than traditional advertising, and once clever marketers start to exploit this we will see smarter uses of online networking communities to promote all manner of products and services.
As those online community sites become more and more marketing-driven, how will their members react? Will they be happy to accept the intrusion as long as it enhances their experience - a bit like Google, where the benefits of Google's service outweigh the advertising that goes with it? Or might things reach a point where the communities say: "This is our place, and we liked it better when you weren't here. Go away, you're not welcome here". It would be just as easy for a a million people a week to leave MySpace as it was for them to join it.
I suppose the answer lies in two areas. First, will marketers be clever and sensitive enough to recognise that if they want to interact with those communities they have to give as well as take? Will they be brave enough to allow the community's to make their own decisions and discuss them openly with their friends and peers? This may be an age of technology, but thankfully this technology stops well short of mind control. If companies play the game according to community rules everyone will be happy.
The second threat to the major online community sites will come from innovative new services offering better features and a richer experience. Doubtless there are plenty in planning as I write, and the biggest users of community sites just happen to be the group most likely to experiment with new things.
So far, it looks like Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of MySpace could be a shrewd move, but let's review it in a year or so.