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Social Marketing "Experts" Don't Know Jack About Facebook, Twitter, and Their Kin

Marketers, entrepreneurs, software, developers, and those trying to influence public opinion will likely friend a new study from the Pew Internet Project that gives insight into how U.S. adults use leading social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

Pew has created a depth of insight into social networks that was previously absent in many business discussions. Among the subjects covered:

  • Political or civil engagement
  • How trusting users are
  • The source of social network friends
  • Basic demographic breakouts by service
  • What users do on social networks, and how often
In turn, that means a lot of companies may suddenly find that assumptions they've made about social network users have to go out the window. They might also learn that the audiences a given social network can deliver is a heck of a lot smaller than simple user counts for the services suggest.

Of the 2,255 adults Pew surveyed, 79 percent were Internet users. About 59 percent of the Internet users are on at least one social network, which is double what a 2008 Pew study found. A vast majority of them use Facebook, although many also use LinkedIn (LNKD), MySpace, and Twitter, as a graph I put together shows:

Many companies and so-called experts treat social media strategies as something relatively constant. However, the significant variation in demographics and user characteristics by social network suggest that what targets users on one site might not on another.

For example, more than half of all adult social network users are over age 35. And yet, look at this Pew graph showing the breakout by age across the social networks it studied (click to enlarge):

Gender distribution of all U.S. social network users was 44 percent male, 56 percent female. That represents a shift from a more balanced 47 percent male, 53 percent female in 2008. The gender splits by particular social network vary widely, as the Pew graph shows (click to enlarge):

LinkedIn skews nearly two-to-one toward male users, while Twitter is the mirror image.

For those who have written off MySpace (News Corp is reportedly near to selling the service for $35 million), a more in-depth look at the information might also raise some eyebrows. Although its audience is dwindling, it's still significant. A full 76 percent of MySpace users, in fact, have used the service for at least two years. Reaching them would be served by understanding that particular group.

That said, you have to also examine how frequently people use the different networks (click to enlarge):

About 29 percent of people with a MySpace account never use the service, which means at least some of the two-year-plus veterans only have accounts because they haven't bothered to get rid of them.

For Twitter, the no-show rate is 18 percent, with 23 percent not even showing up every few weeks. That's effectively 41 percent that are users in name only. With 35 percent showing up less often than every few weeks and 9 percent never going by, 44 percent of LinkedIn's users are also essentially members in name only, and an additional 28 percent only stop by every few weeks.

Furthermore, it's easy to draw the wrong conclusions about the dynamics of a specific service. The study says that the average Facebook user has met 93 percent of their connected "friends" in real life at least once, and 89 percent more than once. Those trying to use the site professionally, such as those in marketing and media, could easily find themselves connecting with others they were less involved with and assuming that most Facebook users did the same.

There's also data suggesting that either non-Internet users are paranoid or that those on the net are naïve: 27 percent of non-Internet users think that "most people can be trusted," compared to 46 percent of Internet users. (Frequent Facebook users are 43% more likely than other Internet users and more than three times more likely than non-Internet users to trust others.)

The complete report offers other insights, including breakouts by education and ethnicity, political engagement, and civil activity.


Image: Flickr user ButchLebo, CC 2.0.
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