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New Rules for Business in the Social Media Age

If you, or your company, still think of social media as optional, or just "not for our customers," you should read this new Nielsen survey. It found:

  • Nearly 80% of online Americans are now using social media (blogs, Twitter, and social networking sites)
  • Over 140 million Americans visit Facebook every month
  • Boomers are driving the growth of social networking on mobile devices
Given this tremendously wide adoption, all organizations, large or small, need to make social media an essential part of their marketing and communications plan. But the question is, how?

I delved into the Nielsen data on social media usage and found six imperatives for marketers seeking to communicate in the social media era:

1. Go where the attention is. Social media now fills 23% of the time Americans spend online, more than email, games, or any other activity. As the top social networking site, Facebook consumes more user time than any other website, capturing 890 million hours of attention in May 2011 alone. In a world of fragmented media channels--from television to print to online--if you want to compete for the attention of your customers, social media has to be included as a part of your marketing strategy.

2. There is no "typical" social media user. For years, analysts have attempted to describe the ever-evolving social media user: female, college-age, educated, coastal, technology-savvy, etc. The surprising finding of the newest data is that there truly no longer is a "typical" user of social media. The differences in social media adoption rates between men and women, white and non-white, rich and poor, have flattened out to a matter of just a few percentage points. Young adults 18-34 are only marginally more active on social media than their bosses and parents. Even Americans 65+ years old are only 9% less likely to be on social media than the average. The mythical "digital generation" of young tech adopters has given way to a digital society.

3. Know your audience. Just because Americans of all stripes have adopted social media into their digital behaviors, does not mean they are all using the same Web services equally. The fast-growing blogging site Tumblr skews towards female teens. African-Americans are more likely to be found on Twitter than other races. Internet users with a graduate degree are three times more likely to visit LinkedIn than those without. It is therefore imperative that marketers get to know their own customers and find out which social media sites are best for reaching them.

4. If you're global, think local. Social media preferences vary widely between countries as well. In Brazil, Google's old social network Orkut still takes first place ahead of either Facebook or Google+. In the U.K., Tumblr has grown to be the number two social media site, whereas in France that spot is held by local site Overblog. In Spain, Tuenti has fewer users than Facebook, but they spend more time there (nearly 5 hours a month). If your organization has a global presence, it is important to match your social media communications plan to the appropriate platforms within each local market.

5. Leverage social media for loyalty marketing. For years, companies wondered whether customers really wanted to "friend" or "follow" them in social media. It is now clear that while users may not confuse brands with their close friends, they do want to relate to brands via social media as well. In fact, active adult social networkers are much more likely to follow a brand (53%) than a celebrity (32%). Given that prior studies have shown discounts and product information as key motivators for following brands, marketers would do well to see social media as a tool for loyalty marketing. Rather than trying to acquire new customers via a platform like Facebook, most organizations should use social media to build their relationship with existing customers. This can include efforts focused on customer retention, upselling to premium services, and inducing product trials for new offerings.

6. Think of influence as online and offline. Social media has often been described as a place to reach online "influencers" â€" those elusive bloggers and digerati who hold the ability to sway others through their online comments and behavior. In fact, the difference between your influential customers online and offline may not be much. Traditional mass media opinion leaders, from talk show hosts to newscasters, have taken up residence in social media channels. Among regular mortals, those who are most active in social media are also more likely to be socially active offline, whether dating (45% more likely), going to professional sporting events (19% more), or attending political rallies (26% more). They also spend more online on clothing and music, and are 60% likely to post online product reviews.

Know Your Customer
The question for businesses is no longer, "should I be using social media to communicate?" but "how should I?" While national data can point to broad demographic trends, and the rise of new social media platforms, each business needs to become intimately acquainted with its own customers' behavior, in order to continue to reach them in our increasingly networked world.


image courtesy of flickr user, Ed Yourdon
David Rogers presents over 100 business cases and a practical framework for planning and implementing digital strategies in his new book, "The Network Is Your Customer: Five Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age." He teaches Digital Marketing Strategy at Columbia Business School, and speaks at conferences worldwide. Rogers has advised and developed marketing and digital strategies for numerous companies such as SAP, Eli Lilly, and Visa. Find him on Twitter at and on Google+ at