Brands are being told that if they’re not on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, they are committing business suicide. But what do consumers think about marketing and brands in this new media world?

That’s the question that market researcher Sarah Macdonald set out to answer… and her fascinating insights into social networkers were presented recently to the annual SA Market Research Association (Samra) conference.

Macdonald said social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter had shown exponential growth over the past few years, with many South Africans signing up to connect with others online.

Facebook is the largest social networking site with more than 500 million active users worldwide, 50 percent of whom log on to the site every day. In South Africa, there are just over 3.7 million active Facebook users, representing 71 percent of the online population and roughly 7.7 percent of the total population.

Defined more specifically as a microblogging site, Twitter is another social media platform which has attracted an extensive following in South Africa. There are more than 165 million Twitter users worldwide and about 55 000 active Twitter users in South Africa, according to the SA Twitter Report by Fuseware last year.

According to the quantitative research, South African social network users are linked to an average of 130 friends on social networking sites. This puts them perfectly in line with data available from Facebook itself which states that the average global user has 130 friends. And according to Fuseware, the average number of Twitter followers for South Africa is 115.

“Over the past few years, the phenomenal growth in social media usage has attracted the interest of companies looking to exploit these platforms for commercial gain,” said Macdonald.

Social media could be used by businesses to create brand awareness, as an online relationship management tool, to generate leads in order to intercept potential prospects, to learn about new technologies and competitors, and for recruitment purposes.

However, the big problem facing marketers on the new digital frontier was that “social media has been developing so rapidly that researchers have been almost unable to keep up”.

“Some studies from as recently as four years ago are now almost completely outdated,” said Macdonald.

She then detailed a study done in South Africa among people who had used the internet for a year or more, were comfortable using e-mail and surfing the internet and communicated digitally in at least two different ways with friends and family. Researchers also looked at broader studies of global usage and trends on the web.

According to the quantitative study, 61 percent of South African internet users access it via a mobile device and 71 percent access the internet via a personal computer or laptop, be that at home, work, internet cafe, educational institution or elsewhere.

Respondents reported spending anything from seven to more than 60 hours a week on the internet. They generally spend more time online during the week compared to the weekend. This is because weekends are busier, with more activities, social events and family time.

“The trend seems to be to connect to the internet briefly in the morning, then sporadically during the day as the need arises. The most prolonged and intensive internet activity occurs in the evenings, when respondents have the most time available to surf for longer periods.”

Most of the respondents connected to the internet using both a PC or laptop and cellphone. These devices are used at different times and serve different functions. While PCs and laptops are used more often at work and at home, respondents also mentioned using their cellphones to access the internet when at home. Mobile devices are mainly used to connect to the internet when out or on the move.

The most popular online activities are social networking, followed by e-mailing, visiting knowledge and education websites, browsing personal interest websites and reading the news, sport and weather.

A woman told researchers: “The internet plays a huge role in my life – from getting the right treatment for a sick little one, to a recipe for dinner, to cutting many hours off my working month in terms of time saving. It’s one of my biggest assets.”

The most popular websites are Google, Gmail (especially the instant messenger) and Facebook. Google acts as a gateway to other websites, especially when a new information need arises, and Facebook is the website of choice for social networking.

Macdonald said the data revealed “what a fundamental part of people’s lives the internet is becoming, with 59 percent agreeing that life without the internet would be a lot less fun and 56 percent saying that they can’t imagine a life without it”.

In South Africa, social networking is used mainly for personal interaction and as a means of keeping in touch with family and friends. It is also used to reconnect with old friends, make new friends with mutual interests, keep up with new and interesting developments, chat to people all over the world, convey a particular message, send and receive invitations to events and to find work or recruit.

Macdonald remarked: “When asked about their lives before social networking, two types of responses were evident.

“Those respondents who are more introverted were more likely to say that they had limited interaction with other people prior to social networking or that they saw social engagement as a means to develop people skills.

“For these people, social networking can be an easier way to connect with others.”

She went on: “With the huge amount of public interest in social networking, it’s not surprising that companies are looking for ways to leverage it for commercial gain. However, just because a company or brand is active on a social network doesn’t mean that its target audience will be willing to engage.

“It would be wise for companies to take cognisance of the fact that social networks are primarily spaces for social interaction, not commercial activity, and that participants on these sites are more focused on engaging with their friends than with products, services and brands.”

When asked about how they feel about marketing on social networks, the general consensus from the South African respondents in the survey was “they’re okay with it, provided that it is relevant and appealing”.

“So the single most important thing that companies can do to make their social media marketing strategies successful is to target the correct audience with content that is of interest to them.”

Although only 18 percent of internet users click on online adverts, these are still noticed and provoke strong opinions. Respondents in the study were most likely to notice adverts on Google – particularly when searching for products or services. They also notice adverts on Facebook, either down the side of the webpage or invitations to join groups and fan pages.

Pop-ups are infamous, especially work-from-home adverts or “Get rich quick” schemes. These are considered highly irritating and intrusive and were spoken about with contempt.

Other online advertising faux pas include too much advertising, spam in the form of e-mail or SMS marketing, false or misleading adverts such as those linking to unrelated pages, long adverts with lots of text and anything that makes the goods on offer seem questionable or makes the marketer look desperate. - Saturday Star