Should Social Networking Sites Be Used for Promotion?

Taking Advantage, or Seizing an Opportunity?

The popularity of social networking sites has risen tremendously over the last few years. Sites like Facebook and Myspace have attracted huge followings, with people all over the world using them to keep in touch with friends and family, and to get back in touch with old friends. A few crafty businesses and marketers have seen the enormous potential for these sites as advertising space. But are the ads that pop up all over these sites an invasion of privacy, particularly when they are targeted on our personal details, interests and behaviour?

Social Networking

Social networking helps people all over the world to stay in touch with each other

The Future of Advertising?

The reason social networking sites are so attractive as a marketing tool is that they offer an opportunity for highly focused advertising campaigns at an incredibly low cost. Advertising on these sites is currently very cheap, sometimes even free, and ads can be seen by the same amount of people who might see an expensive newspaper or television commercial. Advertisers can also target particular demographic groups, in a way that is impossible with most traditional methods of advertising.

An ad on Facebook can be tailored so that it is only displayed to people whose profiles fit certain parameters. For example, if you want to advertise a music concert, you can specify that the ad is shown only to people who live within a certain distance of the venue who have listed the band or musician in their favourite music. If you’re selling wedding dresses, you can make sure your ad is only shown to adult women who are listed as ‘engaged’ or ‘in a relationship’.

This doesn’t seem so bad at first glance. After all, it reduces the chances of you being shown adverts for products you would never dream of buying.

Some Serious Concerns

But questions have been raised about some of the methods used, by Facebook and other social networking websites, to gather members’ personal data. While our favorite books, films or music might be a fairly harmless subject, do we want advertisers and other third parties knowing about our relationship status, religious or political beliefs, or even reading our thoughts and opinions in blog entries?

While the obvious argument is that, if we don’t want strangers seeing this information, we shouldn’t reveal it, that misses the point somewhat. Social networking sites are meant to be places where we share thoughts and ideas with our friends, whether old school buddies or those we’ve come to know in cyberspace. We don’t necessarily want the same thoughts and ideas to be known by the marketing department of a big conglomerate, or anyone else we haven’t ‘approved’. The policy of social networking sites on sharing members’ information with third parties is sketchy at best, although they do claim to be making attempts to improve the situation.

Another potential problem is that, while advertisers can specify who sees their ads, they can’t always dictate where they are shown. In August 2007, several major British companies, including Virgin Media, Vodafone, and the AA, removed all their advertising from Facebook after it was discovered that ads for these companies were being displayed on pages of the British National Party, an extremist far-right group (as reported by the BBC).

Moving Forwards With Social Marketing

Social networking is still a very new phenomenon, and it’s clear that there are some teething problems when it comes to social marketing. While there are still problems surrounding privacy, we as consumers need to voice our concerns to the developers of social networking sites and make sure they are addressed.

But for consumers and advertisers alike, there are benefits to low-cost online advertising that only reaches those who are likely to be interested. If the developers of these sites can iron out the issues raised above, and improve their information sharing policies, it could become the preferred method of advertising. Who knows, in ten or twenty years it may have helped to reduce the amount of commercials we have to sit through when watching TV!