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April 4, 2008

Izania Downie: Online networking ? gathering an audience

I’ve been thinking about the online networking phenomenon and wondering how it may affect our industry. Unless you’ve been asleep for the past few months you’ll know now that there are two main types of online networking tools. Firstly, the business sites such as ‘Linked-in’ where you essentially put your business background and achievements in your profile which makes you searchable for anyone looking to either employ your skills or do business with you, depending on what you are looking for. Secondly, there are the social sites such as ‘Facebook’ which was developed for students in the US and then opened up to the public last September and has since grown at approx 270% to 32 million users compared to 72% growth of it’s main competitor ‘MySpace’ which has 100 million users in total.

This is a phenomenon worth paying attention to, not to mention a demographically defined audience ready for brands to tap into.

An open book

‘Facebook’ was the first online social network to open its site code and to provide demographic information on users for developers to create applications that serve specific audiences. You may not think this sounds like much when you are just putting your username and a few photos online, but when you think about what other information is being used to create your profile – employment details, interests, the films you watch, political and religious views, even your relationship status and age, links to how you know certain people – you end up with behavioural, psychographic and historical timeline of your life. You also indicate likes and dislikes albeit subtly but through seemingly innocent comments shared amongst friends. Or, not so subtly, you can join groups that stand for certain beliefs, for example ‘Live Earth’ which provides a forum to discuss issues about the environment, or groups like ‘Facebook Marketing’ for those interested in understanding how to harness the power of the network for marketing purposes.

And just for pure fun you can download applications such as ‘Food Fight’ or ‘Happy Hour’ where you can throw virtual food at friends, or send a round of drinks after a hard days work. But is this really pure fun? As the saying goes there is no such thing as a free lunch - you get given a certain amount of credit for free but when you run out of this you can gain more credit by answering a ‘few simple questions’ which of course means more information from you. And the applications when you download them are taking your information as part of the deal. What we are effectively doing is creating a digital fingerprint for our lives beyond what was previously possible in more traditional forms of research techniques.

Harnessing the power

The key for us is how our industry can harness the power of this tool and use it to complement live events. Well, brands can buy space on applications such as Food Fight – there is a company already bidding for the branding on the chicken products – and such items as ring tones and music downloads are easy to brand. How it will work across other industries remains to be seen. But to have a true brand experience we must work out how to mix online with live face-to-face interaction. Maybe an integrated solution can start with gathering the audience online and then take them through to a live experience where they can interact with the brand.

I’m sure as creative an industry as we are, we will soon come up with solutions, or maybe someone already has and would like to share it. But one thing is for sure, we can’t afford to let this phenomenon develop without tapping into its potential for ourselves.

Click here for further details on the revenue opportunities as reported in a recent CNN Money Report.

Izania Downie is executive director of Eventia

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