Maze of social networks

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Prime Minister John Key over-simplified benefits of social networks when he identified them recently as a powerful marketing tool for tourism.

US President-elect Barack Obama’s devastating use of MyBo to organise volunteers and raise funds no doubt fired up Key, who’s also Tourism Minister.

The internet’s hundreds of social networks are websites whose users form clusters and share information, a bit like online clubs.

Facebook and MySpace are the best known but one relevant to Queenstown is tripadvisor.com.

On the related youtube.com, users share video clips.

Researchers reckon about one-in-four internet users join one or more of these networks.

One-in-two joiners visit a network at least daily. These sites now attract people of all ages.

On Facebook – it’s free – you can watch local police-supplied video clips of Queenstown shoplifters and read opinions about the town. On Tripadvisor, you can read guest comments about hotels, and details such as room prices.

Social networks provide a dream resource for word-of-mouth marketing but despite Obama and individual firms’ successes, they remain largely an unrealised dream for business marketers.

Graham Budd, Destination Queenstown’s acting chief executive, says every marketer in the world is wondering how to make the most of social networking.

“Frankly, I think we have to be very careful.”

He sees the networks as an environment designed for consumers to talk among themselves, swapping recommendations and other comments. “There’s a real risk if you try to manipulate or manage that environment.”

As in blogging, site members – often using aliases – can offend.

If they think someone is making a pitch to them, this can backfire on the marketer.

Budd hopes attraction operators and accommodation managers monitor sites like Tripadvisor.

“They will understand what these people think about their business.”

However, he warns against getting into cyber brawls.

He suggests responding to critical comments with something like: “I’m executive X of Hotel Y.” Then ‘thanks’ or

‘I’m sorry you had this experience and this is what we’re going to do about it’.”

Avoid a “smokescreen job” or an argument. Be clear who you are and that you’re responding to a
specific issue. Grow a thick skin against unfair or abusive comments and don’t bite back.

Users can set up alerts for key words but you may be overwhelmed if you widen the search too far. Budd has been.

He might have added: before wading in, watch and study each site to feel the tone, just as in a new job or a new country.

Individual marketing successes on social networks include drumming up interest in watch fairs, promoting films and launching a credit card in Asia.

For most businesses, however, social networks’ promise remains gold at the end of an electronic rainbow.

That goes for network site owners, too. The biggest, Facebook, has what British Marketing magazine described recently as a unique audience of 14.2 million users.

The four-year-old site’s revenue this year will reach about $NZ650 million. However, Facebook shows no sign of when, if ever, it will make a profit.

Meanwhile, John Key’s Youtube appearances, placed for political purposes, give leftists a platform
to abuse him. That’s the downside.