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What is the Future of Social Network Marketing?

2010 October 6

I don’t normally like to make predictions, but here’s one: In ten years, social networks will become the new econometrics.

As social networking technology becomes more advanced and increased online activity makes more robust data sets available, social networks are beginning to be utilized in an amazing variety of ways.  Some of this is exciting, other facets are a bit scary.

However, one thing is clear: Social networks (although not necessarily social media) will revolutionize how marketing is done.  Here’s a short overview of what’s going on.

Social Targeting

A recent Economist article provided a very good survey of how social network analysis is being deployed to target people for a variety of reasons:

Mobile Operator CRM: One example that was given is how mobile operators track calls to determine who is influential.  For instance, those who tend to receive short calls but make long calls have proven to be more influential and therefore more valuable customers.

In his new book, Bursts, renowned social network theorist Albert-László Barabási presents a potentially more nefarious application. He shows how mobile technology combined with social network algorithms can be combined to not only track, but predict our movements and actions.

Financial Fraud: The Economist article also notes that social network analysis software is being deployed to uncover financial fraud.  When someone wants to launch a business unrelated to their social network or regularly consorts with unsavory characters, red flags are raised.

Counterterrorism: One of the most intensive areas in which social network analysis has been deployed is in analyzing terrorist networks.  In an amazing article, Valdis Krebs describes how he deciphered the network behind the 9/11 attacks.

The one place social network analysis hasn’t showed up yet is in targeting mass market consumers.  As I wrote in an earlier post about Big Seed Marketing, influence is highly elusive and contextual.  At the very least, it’s a computational monster.

So I’m a bit skeptical that using social targeting to market to consumers will ever stand be able to on it’s own.  However, it could prove useful in specific situations or in conjunction with other methods, such as adaptive targeting through neural networks.

Social Listening

One of the most exciting areas that social networks are opening up is social listening.  By being able to tap into conversations online, we can gauge consumer sentiment in real time.  Increasingly, this is changing the way we evaluate and market to consumers.

Rishad Tobaccowala recently wrote an excellent overview of the issues surrounding social listening.  He points out that marketers need not only to focus on heavy consumers, but brand advocates and detractors.  In other words, you not only have to join the conversation, but understand it and do something about it.

In his article Tobaccowala also makes the excellent point that listening has very little to do with technology and everything to do with the people engaged in the conversation.  He advocates intensive training to ensure that those who are supposed to be engaging consumers are not turning them away.

Probably the best example of the value of social listening is Cadbury’s Wispa, a brand that had been discontinued.  By being attentive to what was going on in the Web, Cadbury learned that the chocolate bar had an immense following and decided to relaunch it.  It’s an amazing story that you can read about here.

Generating Buzz

When many people think of generating buzz, they think of a one in a million shot, like Justin Beiber, who became a star on social media before the real world.  However, established brands can also tap into the power of social networks to get their message out.

Coke has almost 12 million fans on Facebook; Starbucks nearly 14 million; Adidas over 4 million.  This list goes on…  This isn’t easily done, but brands that achieve it have an enormous pool of brand advocates who they can mobilize to create buzz.

However, as I wrote before, social networks are much bigger than social media.   They are, in fact, how people have interacted with each other since the dawn of humanity.  Therefore it would be a mistake to treat social networks as if they ended with Facebook and Twitter.

A great example of how to do this is O2’s Orgy of Fun campaign, which was centered around their Facebook page which quickly generated over 70,000 fans.  However, it didn’t stop there, they used it to activate university students around Great Britain to compete in a contest.  The prize: a huge party at their university sponsored by O2.  That’s buzz!

Strategic Insight

Probably the most important aspect of social networks for marketing is the insights that it delivers.  As I wrote into my guide to social network analysis for marketers, one of the often overlooked benefits of social networks what they teach us about how information flows and markets are structured.

So before you run off and rush to develop your “Twitter strategy” or your “Facebook Strategy” you should first think about learning a bit more about how social networks function independently of social media.  You can start with this post about the primal forces that drive social networks.

Yet most of all, it’s important to remember that we’re just at the beginning of it all.  Modern social network theory is just a decade old, social media is considerably younger and the real effort to integrate it all is just beginning.

If you’re not confused, you’re probably missing something…

– Greg

8 Responses leave one →
  1. October 6, 2010

    Hey Greg, though you might find our startup interesting — we’re doing social targeting for display 🙂

    Basically the company started off doing customer network analysis — trying to help businesses understand the network characteristics of their existing customers and prospects from a CRM point of view.

    Led by market demand, we began to develop an online advertising solution that incorporates SNA into ad targeting algorithms to deliver ads based (in part) on network characteristics. We combine the network analysis profile with other user profiles (such as an individual’s yield profile or basic interest profile) to determine the best candidate for each impression we serve.

    So far we have found that social targeting does deliver better click through and conversion rates for advertisers than some of the existing targeting technologies you listed in your post “The Future of Consumer Targeting.”I don’t want to flood your comments, but if you’d like to learn more about how it works, let me know, I’d be happy to explain in more detail for you and your readers.

    Cheers from Berlin 🙂

  2. October 6, 2010

    Greg –

    terrific post – think your prediction is spot on –

    these emergent digital networks will combine scale, scope and specificity in an unprecedented way

    allowing data from social networks to be used to inform everything from political polling in Poughkeepsie to product development for crunchier Cheetos

    there are still lots of hurdles between here and there – privacy norms, access issues, civil rights questions – but I think the future is bright for insight driven marketing

    the real question is who makes money in this new ecosystem – who will broker these relationships, insights and data channels

    traditional media companies have larger missed the boat here – and emergent media companies are vulnerable to disruption (think AOL v. Google or MySpace v. Facebook) – I think that leaves the players who own the data channels to consumers – making the fight for the handset, set-top and last mile absolutely critical

  3. October 6, 2010


    Thanks Bill.

    I think you’re right. We’re still in the early days and it’s not exactly clear what the future will bring. One thing is for sure though, social networks will enable multiple business models. I don’t think there will be one “killer app.”

    – Greg

  4. October 7, 2010

    Great piece. Glad to see you’re making the distinction between social networks and social media. If it, in fact, exists I regard it more as Social Interference.

  5. October 7, 2010

    Thanks Paul. What do you mean by social interference?

    – Greg

  6. October 8, 2010

    Greg interesting stuff as always. I think there is no doubt about the influence. Social media affects behaviour. It affects how we comminicate. As it is a person/peer group form of communication – what is communicated and what is taken on board by people has a +ve or negative charge.

    If, no doubt, all of the examples and observations are true in some way, there is a very different issue on the horizon. There is a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap. For all the opportunities or different ways communication/attitudes can be affected or consumers understood – business, marketing & media still operate to a model, organisational structure, business development that looks to ultimately hit an audience. Its a linear process and very well ingrained. I recently chaired the World Advertising Research Centre’s Future of Ad Research. There was talk of buzz etc….but the reality was major businesses still run on rails not only in how they build their brands and comms, but also how they evaluate its success. We measure notional shifts in preference. This is what the brands and the model for generating comms set out to do. It is also how we research. The issue is it is self fulfilling. Change is deferred not because it is n’t there – but to quote JacK Nicolson’s character in a Few Good Men. The system runs that wat because “We cannot handle the truth”.

    The truth you mention and expose maybe true – but it is much harder to find dollars in it. Certainly in the case of agencies & media. Google has disrupted the model. Facebook & Twitter do the same etc, but the notion of Analogue $s being replaced by digital pennies is still very real. For all the evidence that it is worth paying more for influencers – few are willing to pay the price if it moves them above the average price paid for clicks or impressions. Media and media agencies are not paid to influence. They are paid to reach an audiency as cheply as possible. Sometimes spun as return on investment – but it isnt.

    If mobile and geolocation are next, clearly they will influence point of sale or front of mind awareness, shifting behaviour. The issue is whilst context may be more powerful that preference. People will shift and buy, will anyone be able to monetise it. The advertising and media industry may just have to come to terms with the fact that the future is also …..less money for everyone.

  7. October 8, 2010


    Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I think the reason that there is not a whole lot of money for all things social (besides social media, they have an inventory oversupply problem) is that, like much of the the new stuff, we don’t understand it very well.

    As for influencers (not counting celebrities) the reason why people won’t pay for them is that there is no evidence that they should. The details are complex, but the basic reason is that the influential people are only slightly more likely to initiate long chains than normal people do. I touched on this in a post about Big Seed Marketing here:

    Thanks again for a great comment.

    – Greg

  8. October 13, 2010


    Sounds exciting! I would love to know more.

    – Greg

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