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Social Media: Current Developments

Following on from the last two very informative sessions here at the Australasian Media & Broadcasting Congress, we have a social networking panel. Akamai's Stuart Spiteri kicks off by asking about the impact of continuing change, and Andrew Cordwell answers that this is indeed difficult. For MySpace, local people talking about local issues will always continue; the challenge is to build on this in a more global fashion, and to connect these levels. Francisco Cordero also points to the importance of continuing to develop the technology.

Hugh Baldwin, Digital Media Director for Nickelodeon Australia, adds to this by highlighting the fact that users are now in control, and their needs and desires must be met by social networking sites, and quickly. International platforms allow providers to use their content well, but they must to so on a personal, localised basis.

Ben Liebmann, VP Licencing at Fremantle Media Enterprises adds the perspective of a media producer. Outside of Hollywood studios, they are the biggest production company in the world, he says, and for them social media are still a learning experience. He says that no media company owns the viewer any more - they now need to have their content on their own sites as well as on any site where users happen to be, and Fremantle have partnerships with social media sites as well as mobile telephony providers and a range of other media access providers.

Francisco says that frustratingly, in Australia there is still a push to get advertisers excited about social media - instead, advertising companies should already be looking to how this is working overseas. The level of understanding about social media advertising here is still low. This also goes for content producers in Australia, whose material could be made visible to large numbers of users through social media even if international distribution contracts are not available to them.

For MySpace, in fact, creatives were first to come on board to share their content, Andrew notes; game companies have also become an important market here. The key here is for social media companies to better understand the market possibilities, and highlight the segments which are likely to work well. One example of such fresh thinking is a new dating show produced for MySpace which follows the social networking links - contestants have a choice to date any of the top few friends of a selected possible match.

Ben notes that simply running ads on a social media site is hardly providing content - what is key now is to create more attractive forms of content which can be placed on such sites. He notes that users are starting to look for more quality in online content, too - possibly undermining user-generated content itself - and that there is a real opportunity to create attractive content and generate significant user involvement here.

Francisco also points to the benefit of the brand. Australia is ahead of anywhere else in terms of cross-media promotion, and social media simply adds more opportunities into the mix. Hugh says that broadcast media now want to engage personally with the user; digital interactive media want to cast the net more widely and build communities that are as large as possible. Andrew notes that mainstream media are no longer as important to younger users, and do not reach them very effectively any more; it is through online media that communities are now harnessed. Francisco says that this enables brands to build armies of brand ambassadors; TV remains paramount to what social media sites are trying to do, though. Ben agrees that social networks are one part of the overall media mix, and points to the recent Obama campaign, which very effectively connected both old and new media. (Stuart Spiteri adds that Obama's acceptance speech on 4 November was the largest ever event carried on Akamai's network.)

What is the actual sales impact of social media promotions, though? Francisco says that Bebo advertisers don't necessarily share such data with the site - but that it is the community which is built during promotions that is the most important element, and that is may have a more lasting effect beyond any one single promotional campaign. What social media do is push brand awareness and brand recognition. Andrew says that some data is available for MySpace, but won't share the details (but says that results are amazing). MySpace promotions do sell products.

What is the time to move from the ideas stage to successful campaigns in social media? Andrew points to current MySpace events, such as Secret Show (a MySpace preview event for live bands touring in Australia, ticketed using mobile phones) and Black Curtain (a similar event for movies), but doesn't really address the question. Francisco says that the first step is to take ideas to the brands, and if enough brands are coming on board, then some of the original commission shows recently developed for Bebo take around six months from idea to delivery on the site.

What about cross-marketing across multiple social networking sites? Ben says that some marketing projects he's been involved in have developed as projects specific to a particular site and its community; where project ideas come directly from brands, some of them are designed to maximise exposure across as many networks as is feasible. The social networking sites themselves may act more like traditional broadcasters here, and aim for exclusivity. For Bebo, Francisco says, there is often a focus on exclusivity, but he suggests that perhaps it will be the audience that effects a crossover from one site to the other; viral marketing cannot necessarily be contained to any one site.

Stuart adds that there are now 'white label' social networking systems which can be deployed on the fly to support marketing campaigns independent of established social networking sites - but Ben also notes that this loses the potential tie-in with the mass of users already existing on social media sites. He points to the example of Fremantle media-produced Australian Idol - streaming its content as widely as possible is desirable as it also grows the advertising pie substantially, but the most effective way to deal with advertisers would be through a single sale, so working with the advertising people in each social media site individually would be disruptive to the process.

Will the kids which are major users of social media be turned off in the future by the overt product placement in social media content? Francisco points to the great success of shows like Kate Modern even in spite of the product placement, and suggests that users feel that as long as they are in control of the media experience, they don't mind so much. Ben also notes that traditionally, some product placement has been blatant in its overtness, and this puts viewers off; if it is done more sophisticatedly, then it is less of a problem. Andrew also points to the possibility of better target marketing, according to the user preferences expressed in profiles or determined through data mining. Francisco also highlights that user privacy is very sensitive, though, so this must be done with great care.

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