Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Profiling and Understanding Users of Social Networks

If the social networking revolution has you scratching your head wondering about why people are investing time in all of this and how companies can actually benefit from this activity, there is a Harvard Business School study that relays surprising findings about the needs these networks fulfill, how people use these offerings differently, and how Twitter is holistically different.

Most obviously, social networks are an information hub about the activities of those you know. They also serve as a gateway to introductions to new resources and contacts. The HBS study also identified how they enable “under the radar” job searches without giving off the appearance of being proactively engaged in such activity, especially if presently employed.
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What are people doing on social networks?
Since people spend lots of time on these sites; what are they actually doing? Answer: Pictures. The killer app of social networks. People love to look at pictures. 70% of observed actions were related to viewing pictures and other people's profiles. As related in the Robin Williams movie “One Hour Photo”, pictures typically show people at a moment when they are having fun and are happy, a sentiment that we as humans seek for ourselves. Pictures also provide a channel that is a form of voyeurism. While we would not pry into other people's lives physically, online it does not feel intrusive or objectionable. Many first encounters that happen in the flesh after social networking voyeurism include comments like “you're that guy that did that internship in (fill in the blank) last year."

Studying behavior by gender, the biggest grouping was of men looking at women they don't know, followed by men looking at women they do know. It turns out that women also look at other women they know. Overall, women receive two-thirds of all page views. A lot of guys in relationships are looking at women they don't know. Similar to how some people use social networks as a cover for subtly pursuing a new job, they also provide an easy channel to see if anyone might be a better relationship match.

How Twitter is Different

Did you know that Twitter is used mostly by adults, Facebook was originally the domain of college students exclusively, and LinkedIn is populated by executives and professionals? Twitter, was found to be quite different not just in terms of who uses it but also how it is used. Twitter restricts users to 140-character messages. The HBS study found that 90% of posts were created by just 10% of users. This was attributed to how the service uses just words not pictures, and writing is a difficult skill for many people, whereas pictures can simply be posted without commentary if desired on other social networks. Gender-wise, there are more women then men on Twitter, men imbed links in their tweets more often, whereas women actually say things.

Who’s Hot?

Twitter has the buzz and has grown to 20 million monthly U.S. users, Facebook has 90 million, and MySpace can boast 70 million. So why doesn't MySpace get the attention it deserves? It may be that it tends to be stronger in smaller cities and communities in the poorer south and central parts of the country like Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and parts of Florida. The authors commented how MySpace users “aren't in Dallas, but they are in Fort Worth. Not in Miami but in Tampa. They're in California, but in cities like Fresno…not near the media hubs (except Atlanta) and far away from those elite opinion-makers in coastal urban areas”.

Forming Your Social Strategy

Corporate marketers struggle with how to use social networking to reach potential customers. They treat it as another channel to get people to click through to a site rather than what it truly should be used for, which is to create awareness and to offer up a different perspective. Studies have found that people don't respond to advertising on social networks. It is analogous to hanging with friends, when an uninvited stranger joins your conversation and tries to sell you something.

That does not work in real life, nor is it a successful social strategy. A good corporate social strategy emulates the reason for social networks in general - solving social failures in the offline world. What could work is approaching that group of friends we discussed above and saying that your product is designed for them and will make them all better friends. This may necessitate product innovation to make them more social by leveraging group dynamics, which we agree is hard, but will be more effective than just using social media as but another channel to talk to people or advertise on. These are good first steps but they are not a social strategy.


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