Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Marketing and social networking sites - important lessons

On the ACRLog, Steven Bell considers a recent WSJ article about users' growing disenchantment with social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Steven also points out a related article from Wired News that describes how students are getting wary of the online world. Users are choosing to close down their profiles on these sites for a range of reasons including that the sites have grown too large for comfort, they don't protect privacy, the "friendships" made there aren't genuine, and commercial interests are proving too distracting as they infiltrate the networks through spam and fake friend requests.

These and other articles that are cropping up are evidence of some important technology/social trends taking shape and they provide many lessons for librarian-marketers. Here's I'm taking away from these developments:

Most services will fail once they try to be everything to everybody. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all product or service, particularly considering that the overall marketplace seeks customization and close relationships with organizations. Why then, would Facebook willingly throw open its gates to let anyone in and sacrifice its position as a place just for college students? It seems as though Facebook gave up its competitive advantage for the sake of being big, which is exactly what's turning a number of existing users against the service. When it comes to building relationships, big isn't always better. Big in this context can make these sites more threatening and less genuine. In the WSJ article for example, one 19-year-old sophomore tells of how she was compelled to leave Facebook after a creepy incident involving a near-stranger who tracked her down using the site. These sites should do a better job of trying to understand where the value lays for their users and zealously protect that value in everything they do. This approach may mean targeting smaller segments of users, but serving them better.

Another lesson that comes out in these cases is that marketing clutter can do a lot of damage. As the articles describe, network users are increasingly inundated with spam ads and companies that try to befriend them in hopes in increasing sales. To me, this is the dark side of marketing. Bad marketing will fill any new vehicle to reach people with meaningless garbage, making it difficult to get relevant messages across. For their part, site owners are encouraging this kind of commercialism to improve their bottom lines. Once again, the sites are looking at value from the perspective of the service providers, not the users. On a related note, this is why as a librarian I'm reluctant to blindly adopt the "go where the users are" mentality. I hear this phrase a lot and it's a good idea on the surface. I agree that we should make it easy for patrons to interact with us by reaching them when and where it's convenient for them. However, being there is pointless if we don't offer anything useful to them wherever "there" is. If, for example, we toss up a profile in MySpace just because patrons happen to be there, we're just adding to the clutter, giving patrons yet one more thing to sort through. We'd be better off not being involved than in portraying ourselves poorly. If, on the other hand, we put up a profile in MySpace because we have great information about the local music scene, then we're adding value to people's experiences in a way that is respectful and appropriate given the context. Force fitting ourselves into these communities and approaching them as a means to push stuff on people is doomed to failure because they will find a way to filter out this junk thereby cutting off another avenue for reaching them in the process.

The final thought I take away from all this is that people's relationship with technology is continually evolving. The Wired article states, "As the novelty of their wired lives wears off, they're also are getting more sophisticated about the way they use such tools as social networking and text and instant messaging -- not just constantly using them because they're there." This trend presents librarians with a perfect marketing opportunity. As information experts, we are well-positioned to help patrons make sense of technologies and what they're best suited for, as well as how to protect their privacy, and how best to manage all kinds of information. Furthermore, this trend tasks us with the responsibility to research our target patrons to determine which technologies are most appropriate for serving them and in what circumstances. If we hope to reach users as they become more technologically sophisticated, we need to get to know them and their preferences. Putting up profiles in every social site that comes along won't be sufficient to truly reach patrons.

Ultimately, technology isn't the answer to anything - it's a tool to apply to finding and implementing answers. The answers come from our relationships with people and an understanding of what they need and how we can help them. Because most librarians I know are genuine in their intent to make people's lives better and have intimate knowledge of their communities, they already have a big advantage over most competitors out there. The key is to not squander it by neglecting to put our patron's needs at the forefront, online or off. Technology is merely another way of demonstrating our commitment and value, but it doesn't create that value. Whatever we do in the tech world should have its roots in our understanding of our patrons.

Go out there and play with every tool that's out there. Experimentation is necessary to discover better ways of doing things. Some technologies will stay, some will change, and others will disappear, but don't forget why we're using the technology in the first place.

Categories: new_news | random_stuff | technology_tools


Anonymous said...

I found your comments on social networking sites very interesting. Everything I have learned has been nothing but praise and kudos to social networking sites. I think you have some very valid points, but I don't think social networking sites will ever go away. They will just have to get better.

Jill said...

Hi, C.! Thanks for the comment. I agree that social networking in one form or another will continue to be an important part of the Internet and I think that's great. What concerns me in some cases is how these tools are being managed by their owners and applied for marketing purposes without some careful thought about people's needs, preferences, etc. It'll be interesting to see how these sites continue to develop.

brian mathews said...

An analogy I often use is that we have to approach these sites as native users. If I learn to speak French here in the US and then go over to France to teach the kids to speak their language they will see through it. Hmmm, what am I saying, we need to be ubiquitous? Part of the community, instead of just the guy on the street concern selling watches.

Anonymous said...

very interesting read, thanks.