Aided in part by greater access to the Internet and mobile devices, social media usage continues to grow in breadth and sophistication. An interesting by-product of this growth, a social media classification system is emerging based largely on functionality rather than user demographics.
Here's my take on how the major sites fit into the new social taxonomy, and what it means for your business.
LinkedIn- A social network for networking, Linkedin has become the place for Internet users to form new (and bolster old) business connections. With over 175 million members in over 200 countries, it can truly be said that LinkedIn represents the single largest business networking resource on earth.
LinkedIn is all about connections. People utilize past and present connections to grow their business network. These connections are often based on shared experiences, whether business or personal. For example, I may connect with an old high school mate in a different industry that I have never done any business with, or I may connect with a new contact I met at a recent networking event.
The key point is that, regardless of the nature of the relationship, all of my connections on LinkedIn have a business context. I haven't connected with my old high school mate on LinkedIn to chat about the good ol' days (I can do that on Facebook); I've connected because I think the relationship may serve a direct or indirect business purpose, either now or sometime in the future.
Twitter- Whether used for business or personal, Twitter is all about real-time communication. With Twitter, businesses can share content with followers via the real-time tweet stream. This could be informational, promotional, or entertaining in nature; the unifying factor is immediacy. Twitter is concise (140 character limitation) and non-visual. Because of this, many brands are utilizing Twitter as a real-time, quick and dirty inbound and outbound customer service solution. Businesses can offer immediate responsiveness to their client base by fielding questions, resolving complaints, and garnering feedback.
Given the exponential nature of tweeting, Twitter is also great for business promotion. For example, if a company tweets information about a hot new product our service to their Twitter following, interested recipients are likely to re-tweet it to their followers, creating simple, cost-effective, and exponential promotional campaign.
Facebook- If Twitter is real-time communication, Facebook is communication writ large. There are almost 1 billion Facebook accounts worldwide, with roughly 550 million daily active users sharing over 8 billion pieces of content each day (this content trove is growing at a fast clip: last year, Facebook had put daily content uploads at 4 billion).
Facebook is all about people communicating and sharing- ideas, thoughts, updates, plans, notions, arguments, beliefs, photos, videos, links, written content pieces - in short, pretty much anything and everything.
Its massive base, coupled with the sheer amount of content users upload to the site each day, is what makes Facebook so valuable. With all of this data, the social giant is able to offer unparalleled ad targeting to marketers. Facebook is still sorting out how it can most effectively monetize all of this data, especially given that the majority of users access the site via mobile devices. In time it will, though, and when it does, look out.
Given this massive user/content base from which to draw upon, Facebook is great place for ad targeting. I don't subscribe to the notion that it is only good for businesses doing B2C. I challenge you to find many B2B marketers/business persons who do not have a Facebook account. This is relevant because in today's Internet, nothing is segmented. For example, if I am a buyer for Nordstrom, and a friend of mine likes a sponsored story about a cool new pair of shoes from a small company trying to find larger distribution, I'll probably check it out.
I do buy into the mantra that Facebook fosters brand loyalty. People follow brands on Facebook because they either a) like the product, and/or b) are looking for a special discount, coupon, or promotion. Both are forms of brand loyalty- I seldom look for a coupon from a brand I don't like.
Bottom line: (nearly) everyone's on it-our customers, your prospects, your dream clients. You need to be too.
Google Plus (aka Google+, G+)- The Internet's anomalous social network newbie, Google+ has had a checkered history to say the least. As its multifarious spellings infer, Google + is a social network in search of an identity. Boasting 150 million active users (as disclosed by Google on June 28th), G+ seems to be emerging as a social business tool for marketing technology industry insiders and early-adaptor businesses looking to take advantage of its increasingly palpable SEO benefits.
In a functional sense, it's almost like a Twitter/Facebook/Pinterest hybrid (highly-visual social-sharing news feed). Personally, I love Google+, mainly for the simplicity and convenience its full integration with Google's myriad services offers. That said, I have to admit it has a bit of a creepy "Where Have All the People Gone" feel, which is especially apparent when you look at the social share ratios of any major story on the Internet (ex: Facebook- 1005, Twitter-2342, LinkedIn- 983, G+- 27).
It would be too easy to roundly castigate G+, if for no other reason that it represents (at least to date) a rare failure on the part of the (Google) Empire (they can't always be right...can they?).
For my part, to do so would be disingenuous: I think Google+ is a great platform boasting a lot of cool functionalities that other social sites (Facebook included) simply do not have. Besides, it's one of the few spaces left in the social media sphere that does not have random paid ads littering the user interface (granted, it does show ads anyone in your circles have "+1-ed, but you're supposed to like that, as they are recommendations from friends and family, etc; apparently Google has not met my friends and family).
Pinterest- Collaboration and affinity- two words I would use to describe Pinterest. Based on shared affinity, people from all over the globe collaborate to "pin" pictures and videos on virtual pinboards. In this way, Pinterest is different than any other major social network.
Whatever its doing, it's working. The social pinning site has seen meteoric growth- from 700,000 users just last year to 20 million today. The site accomplished this without being full open to the public: until just a few days ago, Pinterest was an invitation-only site.
Pinterest is all about visual connections. The rabid enthusiasm of its user base suggests that visual truly is a more emotional medium. The fact that 1 in 4 consumers are spending less time on other social sites in favor of Pinterest underscores this point. Moreover, the majority of consumers are now using mobile devices to access social networks, and mobile favors visual.
Brands are finding that a presence on Pinterest translates into sales. Roughly 25% of consumers reported purchasing a product or service after discovering it on Pinterest. And these aren't all women: a recent Compete survey found that that 37% of males bought a product or service after seeing it on Pinterest, as opposed to just 17% of females.
Businesses need to take all of this data, and Pinterest, more seriously. I'm a firm believer that Pinterest should be in every marketer's mix; I even wrote a post about how to do it.
YouTube- With over 800,000 monthly users uploading over an hour of video per second, YouTube is Google already has a top-performing social media network. As the world moves more visual thanks to the universal adoption of mobile devices, YouTube is more relevant than ever.
For brands, YouTube is all about visual promotion and engagement. Businesses are using videos to entertain, inform, and of course, promote. eMarketer predicts online video ad spend will reach 3.1 billion in 2012, a 54% year-on-year growth. Why the popularity? As Internet users become more accustomed to digesting video content on desktops, notebooks, tablets, smartphones, and now connected TV's (Internet-enabled televisions), marketers will flock to online video advertising to take advantage of its click-ability and measurability.
Given the vast sea change in favor of all things visual/video, brands to get visual asap. This doesn't have to be a huge production. Begin by setting up a YouTube channel and sharing any video content you already have (promotional videos, etc). Grab a hand-held, or even your smartphone, and get creative filming video blogs (Vlogs), how-tos, interviews, anything. The hardest part is getting started.
Though it is still important for businesses to have a clear understanding of which social networks their target buyer personas tend to spend the most time on, I think the rules are rapidly changing. As social media becomes a more widely used and universally accepted form of communication, lines will continue to blur.
Having said that, greater social usage is breeding sophistication, in turn, fostering an emerging proto-taxonomy of social media coalescing around usage patterns more than anything.
In any given day, I may use LinkedIn to connect with business prospects, Twitter to share business news and insight, and Google+ to hold a virtual meeting (hangout); during my lunch-break (if there is such a thing anymore) I may log into Facebook from my smartphone and check out what's going on; later, while watching TV, I may spend some time surfing Pinterest; in bed, instead of reading, I may find myself watching YouTube vids.
What is the bottom line for businesses? Given the integrated nature of today's social media usage, your brand should be on all of these sites, at least to the extent your resources warrant. For small businesses with limited resources, I suggest at least setting up a presence on all of these sites and engaging as you can, recognizing each site's functional strengths and weaknesses as they relate to your business.
If I had to pick one site, it would still be Facebook, given its sheer reach and relative versatility (it's visual, has a news feed, strong ad targeting capabilities, a decent job app, etc).
However, I'm a firm believer in the beachhead approach: establish a presence on all of these major sites, and add it each as time and resources allow.
After all, as the old Finnish proverb says, "little is better than nothing."