Search marketers seek ways to use social networks

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Social networks have become a powerful channel that can improve brand awareness and create buzz when used correctly, according to search executives.

The past few years have brought a growing number of Web sites that leverage the insight and expertise of their users to identify and categorize content, and a rising number of users rely on their peers to find and share interesting content. This has several implications for search marketers.

"While social search certainly is in its infancy, the top-tier sites can be a remarkable source of traffic, in many cases bringing the server of unprepared sites to its knees," said Andrew Barnett, manager of organic search and emerging technologies for Outrider, St. Louis.

"But the social search sites are much more than a source of traffic," he said. "They represent an opportunity to connect with an influential, tech-savvy audience. As their user base grows, so will their attractiveness to marketers."

So how do search marketers monetize this phenomenon?

"In recent years, there has been a seismic shift in the most effective tactics of white hat search engine optimization companies," Mr. Barnett said. "SEO has grown from a very technically oriented enterprise to one that increasingly relies upon creativity and other online marketing disciplines."

Marketers need to gain an understanding of the content that interests consumers, then creatively fill that void, he said.

But social networks present challenges.

"The control factor, or letting go, is another challenge marketers will struggle with in this venue," said Brian Kaminski, managing director at iProspect, San Francisco. "People can talk back, but they are not always going to say the things you want them to say. Marketers need to have a strategy in place to manage such content."

Take Yahoo Answers. The new social network lets users ask each other questions and give one another feedback. But Yahoo cannot control what users write.

Marketers need to question whether social networks fit their business goals, Mr. Kaminski said. Also, companies need to decide whether they want to participate in one of the more traditional networks such as MySpace or build their own.

"Marketers should also be mindful that online communities have a tendency to collapse and rebuild," he said. "Don't dive in all at once. Start slow and test, and realize it will take time to build a community. Search marketers also need to assess the value of social networks and determine whether developing a strategy would be worthwhile."

This makes it important for marketers to identify some metrics, including those that they can correlate with other channels.

Marketers also should be aware that a social networking strategy typically needs to push the envelope of a brand's comfort zone to be effective, Mr. Kaminski said.

Integrating social networking into search engine marketing campaigns is increasingly popular.

"A social network profile based around the brand, logo or character in a commercial allows for that individual social network profile, in accordance to that brand, to take on a life of its own," said Dave Neupert, CEO of M80 , Los Angeles.

It also lets the brand create an online personality, build a reputation and catapult interactivity from the brand to the consumer and back again within a platform that the consumer understands, Mr. Neupert said.

"Not to mention there are millions of consumers engulfed in multiple social networks that today tailor to many age groups and passions [that] humans have infinitesimal boundaries for," he said.

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