By David Pickering, Managing Director of Eclipse Marketing
Why should companies be sitting up a paying attention to social networking?
Essentially, the new generation of web 2.0 communities is providing new ways for people to share experiences, and forge and maintain relationships.
What organisation can afford to miss out on opportunities to engage with consumers in fresh and exciting ways, as well as find out what they are saying about its brands?
If anyone is in any doubt about the power of social networks, let the statistics speak for themselves.
Around 1.5 billion people in the world today have access to the Internet.
A recent report on European online consumers found that around 60% of users take part in social networking activities of one kind or another and interact with online communities.
This might be reading or writing blogs, listening to podcasts, setting up RSS feeds, or reading and writing online customer reviews.
Don't be fooled by the 'fluffy' side of social media. Social networking is much more than a leisure obsession for the under-30s. MySpace, Facebook and Bebo may be the names on everyone's lips but social media is so much more than that.
Consider this. Would Google have purchased YouTube, News Corp have bought MySpace or Yahoo! acquired Flickr if they weren't convinced of the growing power of social networking?
The rise of social media is bringing big changes. Control of information is shifting out of the hands of established big business and into the hands of the individual consumer.
Rather than the mainstream corporates, increasingly it's the users who are in control. Instead of listening to advertisers, they increasingly refer to their peers in online communities when deciding what to buy.
Social media is becoming the voice of the consumer. This is having a profound impact on the relationship between brands and consumers.
To succeed, companies must understand and embrace this new kind of democratic communication, not shy away from it.
Marketers must respond to this new empowerment of consumers and seize the opportunity to establish anew kind of dialogue with them.
Social media gives customers the chance to form a closer involvement with brands; they give brands a way of finding out what the public really thinks about them.
They can give valuable insights into consumer views on products and services and can certainly get your brand talked about online.
All this can work both ways, of course. Good news travels fast within Online communities and positive messages can be very effective in raising brand profile and, directly or indirectly, generating sales; bad news travels even faster, however, and can inflict great damage on reputations and bottom lines.
Make no mistake, this is powerful stuff. Social networking is changing the way we publish, consume and share information. It is profoundly affecting the way we think - or should think - about marketing and public relations.
Forums and blogs and other kinds of social networking - either as we see them now or as they will evolve in the future - are here to stay.
We dismiss or underestimate them at our peril.
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