Making It Work

Social networks have emerged as an innovative marketing platform due to certain characteristics about network users and the way in which users communicate. The unique structure of social networking sites, coupled with their consumer-members' desire for self-identity and authenticity, enables the success of viral marketing among users.

I. Network Characteristics

In 2007, 70 percent of teens and 37 percent of adults in the U.S. accessed social networking sites at least once per month. An additional 12 million adults and 1.7 million teens are expected to join the social networking ranks in 2008. What distinguishes social media from other frequently visited, brand name sites (such as Yahoo! or MSN) are their interconnectivity. Facebook and MySpace invite all users in, and while their populations may be self-selecting, they represent a connected cross-section of consumer America. In other words, they are a prime environment for word of mouth marketing campaigns.

Word travels fast on social networking sites. Young adult users who frequent platforms such as MySpace and Facebook are quick to note updates to their friends' profiles. The addition of the 'Mini-feed' feature to Facebook acts like a news ticker, broadcasting recent changes to others' pages. As a result, endorsing a product or brand through one's user profile is a highly visible move. Word of mouth marketing through social networks capitalizes upon such profile-augmenting transmissions to generate 'buzz' about an up and coming artist or event. Users are able to recommend an artist to all of their friends simultaneously, simply by adding a band to their favorites lists. An act that, at its roots, remains entirely self-centered — editing the music section of one's profile is a means of both regenerating interest in and giving contour to one's online identity — in effect, becomes one of public endorsement.

MySpace and Facebook have their respective strengths as promotion-enabling networks. Although MySpace bests Facebook in terms of member population and music industry presence, it requires users to be more proactive in discovering alterations to friends' pages. No 'Mini-feed' feature alerts members to the profile additions friends have made. Yet, when a band appears among a member's top friends, visitors can link to the artist's profile and, if the page is so equipped, immediately begin hearing the group's latest recordings. While Facebook Music pages include some audio capabilities, they lack the brazen, automatically-plays-upon-landing quality of the embedded MySpace music player.

Despite these differences, both platforms share the ability to simultaneously serve the interests of both artists and consumer-members. Artists have free access to a disproportionately young, music-savvy population, while members have the semblance of establishing personal connections with their favorite bands. The low cost and ease of involvement make word of mouth marketing on social networks attractive to promoters, just as free access to new material and music news from the bands, themselves, satisfy listeners.

II. Meeting Consumer Desires

A. Appealing to Identity

The teenage search for self-identity is not limited to the physical world, alone. It plays a defining role in young adult participation on social networks. Growing up in a networked world invariably complicates one's quest for self-definition. The self exists in two dimensions, both the real and virtual worlds, dimensions that remain distinct, though not entirely disconnected. Furthermore, within these unique environments, a person may wear many different hats: student, sibling, son or daughter; message board member, MySpace user, newsgroup participant. Juggling personas is difficult, enough, in one world, much less two. In an attempt to anchor themselves, both in the real and virtual arenas, teens often latch onto status symbols and celebrity idols as markers of identity.

On social networking sites, one's profile serves as a direct embodiment of online identity. The information one chooses to post or omit makes a statement about those qualities and interests with which one yearns to be associated. Profile lists of bands, books and movies are highly cultivated to send a certain message about the person behind the MySpace or Facebook page. As
University of California-Berkley researcher danah boyd notes in her 2006 article, //Why Youth (Heart) MySpace//, profiles are carefully designed to fit within the norms of a selected social group. "Personalized answers to generic questions" outfit a profile with the creator's imprint, whatever he or she desires that imprint to suggest. As social network users must "write themselves into being" ([http://www.danah.org/papers/WhyYouthHeart.pdf] id.), the band names one chooses to list among his or her favorites send a calculated message as to the scene with which he or she desires to be identified.

Because of this need to carve out an online identity, social network members inevitably are going to seek out ways to identify with particular brands, institutions and cultural icons through their profiles. For profile-augmenting purposes, artists exist as no more than a brand to identify with, a practice that today's young adults have been indoctrinated into since toy commercials peppered their Saturday morning cartoons. The associations made with a particular brand — or band — have become "insinuat[ed] … into the fabric of children's lives" (APA).

Due to the consumer-member's need to 'identify,' an artist can receive a public recommendation without soliciting support. However, as bands (and fans) have increasingly turned to networked sites as a means of disseminating and receiving information, a competition has emerged to find more unique ways for a band to become integrated into individual user profiles. Consumer-members desire flashier ways to display their allegiances, while artists seek means of becoming more than just a line of text buried halfway down a profile page. These complimentary quests cause network users to be ready and willing to add widgets and media content to their Facebook accounts, and compel bands to be proactive in seeking out new applications for fans to implement. Regardless of how 'deeply connected' to an artist's lyrics a fan considers him- or herself, online, the shared, central objective of the fan, as well as the band, is marketing an identity.

B. Joining the Conversation

Young Internet users evidence a resistance to being regarded merely as potential sales by marketers, craving substance and personalization in an ephemeral online environment. Music marketers have begun to capitalize on this desire for meaningful connections by implementing promotional techniques that embrace connectivity. While traditional marketing focused on delivering a one-sided message to consumers, social network advertising employs a conversation-oriented approach. By using networked youth as promoters in themselves, music marketers are able to harness the authenticity inherent in member relationships while simultaneously putting a human face on the bands they represent.

By setting up a MySpace or Facebook account, an artist is extending a virtual olive branch. Once independent acts turned to social networking platforms as a low cost promotional tool, major label acts began engaging the same platforms as a means of keeping pace. Now, the big name act that does not have a MySpace page appears disconnected, on both a personal and technological level. In a world where relationships are explored and validated both in real and virtual space, the inability to connect with a favorite group on MySpace may very well negatively affect a young fan's impression of the artist. A notable absence raises certain questions: Is the group so out of touch as to not have even heard of MySpace? Are they just that unwilling to being accessible to their fans?

The influx of young adults in the online marketplace — coupled with their impact on the popular definition of 'cool' — makes meeting digital native expectations crucial to the success of promotional campaigns. By aligning corporate interest with consumer desires, social network marketing initiatives both foster and capitalize upon the networked world of today's tastemakers. The relationship that a band is able to establish through social networking sites with its fan base, at large, strengthens the interactions between fans as well. By providing a focal point for disscussion and regularly updating their profile to steer the conversation, bands can ensure that (virtual) peer pressure, as well as word of mouth recommendations, continue to function to maximum advantage.

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