Using social networking sites to monetize search campaigns

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One in four members of the U.S. online adult population ages 18 years and older visits one of the major social networking sites at least once a month. And one in three U.S. online adult users who visited one of those sites within the last year made a purchasing decision influenced by that visit.

The data, from a recent study by iProspect, Watertown, MA, illustrates the potential of some of the major social networking sites, further cementing notions that they may be viable marketing vehicles.

"First and foremost, social networking is about user-generated content on Web sites, and the ability that other users have to find, read, interact and be influenced in some way by that user-generated content," said Rob Murray, president/CEO of iProspect.

"Search is tied to social networks because the user-generated content on many of these sites is crawled and indexed by search engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN," he said. "As a result, it is easily found by the massive population of users who launch keyword searches on these engines."

Mr. Murray said marketing opportunities on social networking sites depend on the site.

For example, some sites allow marketers to place display ads, paid search listings and contextual ads on their sites. MySpace displays Google's sponsored search listings when a user searches on the site.

Other sites do not allow such overt commercial advertising, but may allow companies to post comments on the site, along with the other user-generated content. This allows the marketer to engage in a dialogue with members of the site's user community.

"Regardless of the manner in which a given site allows marketers to participate on the site, social networking is simply another channel by which search marketers can target users who match the profile of their target audience," Mr. Murray said. "It also becomes a channel to observe what is being said about their products and services. This could affect future marketing initiatives in other channels."

Almost all the networking sites have a distinct user base. For example, mostly high school and college kids use Facebook and LinkedIn is used mainly for business networking.

The demographic depends on whether you are referring to the people who simply visited and read the site's content or those who regularly post content on the site, per Mr. Murray.

A good example is YouTube, since many consumers visit the site to be entertained by the videos hosted there. However, the consumer who posts multiple videos on YouTube each week is probably different from the one who solely watches videos.

"If a search marketer can identify a site whose user community seems to match the profile of his current customers or targeted prospects, and that user community demonstrates an interest in content or topics that are relevant to a product or service that he offers, the marketer can choose to participate on that site in the manner by which the site allows - be it direct advertising, posting comments, tagging or encouraging your existing customer to post content, which may contain a link back to [the] marketers' own Web sites," Mr. Murray said.

Through the use of Web analytics software, marketers can identify where visitors on a site came from. Value can be attributed to the generated conversions depending on the user's participation on that specific site.

Marketers can also use social media sites to learn more about their potential customers.

Just reading as much of the user-generated content on a given site allows marketers to get an idea of who their audience is.

Mr. Murray recommended that marketers perform a keyword search using the site's own search function for a given topic and then read what and how much content consumers have posted on the topic.

"Is their commentary on a given topic more positive, negative, or neutral?" he said. "Does the user community seem to have a particular social, political or intellectual bias? Some sites - iVillage and MySpace, for example - have pre-defined categories that they've created as a result of visitor interest into which user-generated content can be added and explored."

Mr. Murray gave some tips on how marketers should be integrating social networking into search engine marketing campaigns.

For example, appoint a single representative from your company to regularly engage with the user communities of the sites on which you are participating.

"Centralizing this responsibility will ensure a common voice and a consistent message across the multiple sites," Mr. Murray said.

If a site allows the posting of links to relevant content, it may be valuable to respond to fellow members of the user community by pointing them to educational or informative content on your own site that speaks to their expressed interest.

Marketers could even direct the user community to free events, webinars hosted by the company and free tools on the site, if applicable.

"Include links to the social networking sites that you are targeting in an e-mail that automatically gets sent when someone performs a certain action on your site, or in an e-mail sent a week after they have bought one of your products, or in an online customer survey - inviting visitors to your site and existing customers to tell others about the positive experiences they had with your brand," Mr. Murray said.

"All these activities will have an impact on the perception of your brand, will help drive traffic to your site, and most will facilitate users and site owners linking to, and book marking, your site," he said. "The only investment in implementing these techniques is time, so it is wise to attempt these first, prior to investing in actually advertising on any of these sites."

Although social networking sites potentially are effective marketing vehicles, marketers should not solely depend on them when planning a search campaign.

"Marketers need to realize that despite the surprisingly frequent visitation to these sites, they are still visited far less frequently than any of the major search engines," Mr. Murray said.

"While the largest of these sites, MySpace, is visited daily by 12 percent of the U.S. online adult user population, MSN is visited by 22 percent, Google by 33 percent and Yahoo by 40 percent," he said. "So search marketing via the traditional search engines is still the more viable channel in terms of pure numbers."

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