If the 100 million Facebook users worldwide or the 1.5 million new blog posts indexed every day by Technorati weren't proof enough that social media has gone mainstream, then the news that Hollywood is making a film about Facebook should convince even the most hardened social media sceptics. The attraction of social media to marketers is obvious: it's where consumers are meeting, talking, sharing and creating content.
"People are spending more and more time on social networks," points out Blake Chandlee, European Union commercial director at Facebook. "We are attracting 300,000 new users every month and that's across all demographic groups, not just youth."
Social media isn't just about social networks though; it's wherever there's user-generated content, says Sally Cowdry, marketing director for O2 UK: "So, of course, you have Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace but you also have video with YouTube, photos with Flickr, news and reviews on TripAdvisor, Toptable and those kinds of websites."
For O2, social media is important because it's usually where the customer journey begins. It also provides a tremendous amount of insight into customer behaviour.
"Thirty-two per cent of customers trust bloggers more than official sources, so it's core to the way customers are seeking information, using it and sharing it," says Cowdry. "It's a natural extension to our through-the-line media."
But with so many social media sites out there, where should marketers begin when launching a social media strategy? Of course, there are the traditional display-advertising opportunities available on blogs, review sites and more. But Chandlee suggests looking beyond these to social media specific content, such as branded pages, widgets and games. "Facebook consumers have a very different mindset when they are in these environments," he warns. Cowdry agrees: "The challenge we set ourselves is how to become part of those conversations rather than interrupting them, as a lot of social media sites are set up by customers for customers, and in many spaces they are anti-brand," she says.
This is why Will McInnes, managing director of social media agency Nixon McInnes, suggests doing nothing at first but listening to what consumers have to say.
"You'll suddenly discover valuable feedback that will be helpful to other people in your organisation. For instance, there might be an online club devoted to a product you were going to get rid of," he says. Nixon McInnes is working with BMW to find out who its leading influencers are online.
"BMW is launching a new niche product before Christmas and normally it would do a formal track day with journalists, but we're going to invite bloggers and online influencers into a similar process," explains McInnes. "So they'll have access to the new car, spend a day with the BMW team and get some media training about how to be in front of the camera. It's about actively trying to create assets and collateral that they can share with online friends and audiences."
It might not sound much like marketing, but McInnes claims it's marketing in its purest sense: "We're used to shouting about ourselves but it's a cultural shift back to the textbook definition of marketing, which is - find out what people are asking for, and go and make it," he claims. "That's what brands succeeding in this space are doing remarkably well."
Such brands include Dell, which has had its fingers burnt online - remember, Dell Hell (www.dellhell.net)? - but McInnes believes Dell has now learnt the error of its ways and bounced back with IdeaStorm, a site where users are encouraged to submit and rate ideas for technology they'd like Dell to consider, such as standard laptop chargers.
It's widely acknowledged in the marketing industry that despite rapid consumer take-up of social media, brands have been slow to move into this area.
"We were concerned about having permission to be there," admits Cowdry. Brands also need to have absolute confidence in their product, she says. When O2 launched its Cocoon phone, it decided to give the handsets to bloggers for review, even though it was a risky strategy.
"If they don't like it, you're inviting criticism," she concedes. "But if they do like it, it's the most positive word of mouth you can get. We web-mapped the conversations online and the amount of positive feedback was enormous."
On Facebook, branded pages and applications are the two most popular advertising methods, although Chandlee concedes that not every advertiser has worked out how to use them to best effect.
"A lot of people have tried to build an application, but these are very sophisticated tools and the biggest mistake brands make is not understanding how these work. The key question is: why would a consumer add that application? If it's something you and your mates would do on a regular basis or it gets people competing against one another, then it could work," he advises.
In September, Facebook launched its Engagement Ads beta programme in the UK, ahead of a full roll out this month. This will potentially bring advertisers even closer to their customers, because users will be able to comment on targeted brand ads and any feedback will appear in their news feeds, as well as alongside the ad when it is served to their friends.
It could work: research from Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions found that a quarter of users on social networks forward an ad or link to friends. A campaign Nixon McInnes designed for Oxfam saw 91,969 sign-ups of support, as the campaign went viral via widgets on social networks and other online communities.
The right demographic
One could argue the campaign worked because Oxfam was targeting young people who, so the theory goes, spend more time online than any other demographic.
But that's just not true, says Cowdry. "Social network sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo have a youth bias but 74% of people aged 35 or over have interacted with social media, so I don't think there are many brands that wouldn't be able to find a social community for the demographics of their product."
As Chandlee says, the early adopters such as Apple and Nike have set the standard for social media campaigns but FMCG firms and car manufacturers are pushing hard into this space. The best advice for the majority of companies is to generate ideas for how their brands can work well in social media, and to do it now.
Blake Chandlee is EU commercial director at Facebook, responsible for expanding its European presence.
Sally Cowdry is marketing director at O2 UK. She has repositioned its marketing under the strapline: 'We're better, connected.'
Will McInnes is co-founder and managing director of social media agency Nixon McInnes, whose clients include BMW and Fat Face.
SMART THINK!NG - SOCIAL MEDIA
1. Don't rule it out. Brands as diverse as Saga, MTV and More Than are targeting customers this way
2. Advertising through social media doesn't work by shouting about how great your brand is
3. Campaigns go viral because people want to share and interact with content
4. Even if marketers aren't running a specific campaign, they need to be continually monitoring the blogosphere
5. Accept that fingers might be burnt along the way but lessons learned will help refine future campaigns
CASEBOOK - O2 rolls out social media strategy with key partners
O2's social media strategy was designed around three principles: "If we're to be in this space, we need to be fresh and different, which is our brand ethos anyway; we need to be interactive, allowing participation and feedback; and finally, we need to enhance any community we're in, rather than interrupting it," explains Sally Cowdry, marketing director at O2 UK.
The mobile telecoms giant's strategy was to build up a relationship with core bloggers and influencers online, as well as developing more strategic partnerships with popular social networks. Last year, for example, it ran a campaign through a branded page on Facebook called 'the battle for the UK's favourite university' to promote the brand's 'favourite place' tariff, which gives mobile customers unlimited calls to UK landlines and O2 mobiles from a postcode of their choice.
Within 11 days of launch, the campaign had attracted 63,000 members, as students from all over the UK posted pictures and comments about their university with the hope of winning the ultimate prize: a £50,000 O2-branded party to be held at their university.
"It was the fastest growing group on Facebook at that time," recalls Cowdry. "It appealed to the target audience's sense of ownership and got them engaged with our product."
This year, O2 built on the success of last year's campaign, while giving it a new twist. For the 'O2 Unlimited Orgy of Fun' campaign for students, university teams were set challenges to win points and prizes in different contests, with the winning university receiving a branded party on campus. This time, the campaign generated 77,000 'fans' on Facebook.