Social networking sites such as MySpace.com are some of the most trafficked on the Web—MySpace had 46 million unique users in June and features nearly 100 million personal profiles posted by users, many of whom are in their teens and twenties. What's more, the average MySpace user clocks two hours per visit on the site.
But MySpace and its rivals have also come under fire from law enforcement officials, policymakers, and parents, who worry that they are a haven for child predators.
Given that backlash, is MySpace a safe bet for advertisers? Apparently so. To market their summer movies, a number of Hollywood studios struck advertising deals with News Corp, MySpace's owner, including several who crafted profile pages featuring movie characters.
I don't think News Corp really minds MySpace's racy image.
We asked John Deighton, the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and an expert on interactive advertising, to give us a quick overview of the MySpace phenomenon. Deighton was the founding co-editor of the Journal of Interactive Marketing, which reports scholarly research in this field, and is currently editor of the Journal of Consumer Research, a leading journal publishing interdisciplinary studies of consumer behavior.
Sean Silverthorne: Who is using MySpace to advertise?
John Deighton: Fox created a profile page for X-Men: The Last Stand. Disney ran a contest to place the trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest on the profile page of a MySpace member, turning the winner into the most popular kid on the block. Unilever, Pepsi, and many of the national advertisers that Google aspires to serve are playing with it.
Q: What do you think of MySpace as an advertising platform? How will it develop?
A: I think MySpace is a really exciting marketing frontier, fertile with possibilities. It is a rival to paid search, and products like MySpace might conceivably evolve into something even bigger.
Google's limitation as an interactive marketing medium today is its insistence on respecting the anonymity of its users. MySpace puts the power of individual identity in play. You're not anonymous on a social networking site—you're exactly the opposite. You're presenting a managed self to the world.
Q: These sites often have wonderful demographics from an advertiser's perspective—MySpace in particular has millions of members who are young, plugged in, and likely influencers in their peer groups. But do advertisers buying space on these sites face danger from the backlash of negative publicity?
A: It poses dangers to youth, but paradoxically, less than the real world, and it's easier to police. It is popular precisely because it sits between safe-boring and truly frightening. I don't think News Corp really minds MySpace's racy image.
Q: One of the interesting strategic choices these sites face, especially those that appeal to a teenage user base, is how they will evolve their offerings to keep these subscribers even as they grow older and their tastes change.
A: MySpace will evolve with its users. It relies on user content, so this is bound to happen. As member tastes grow up, so will their profiles.
Of course the appeal of a platform for self-crafted identity projection is most intense in adolescence and young adulthood. It is likely that there will always be an age demographic skew to these products. But a new generation is growing up in the glare of Friendster and MySpace and YouTube and LinkedIn, and I for one don't have a clue what they will be getting into when they are senior citizens.
Q: Looking at these sites from the perspective of the provider (i.e., the MySpace marketing department), is there a danger from tactics such as using "profiles" to also serve as advertising? The bigger question: What kinds of advertising work with these age groups of teens and twenty-somethings?
A: An old rule of thumb in the advertising industry was "relevance and likeability." If ads had both, no one seemed to feel manipulated when their sitcom was interrupted by a commercial message.
That goes for MySpace commercial sites. Arctic Monkeys, a Sheffield, England, post-punk revival band that is promoted from a MySpace site, is a case in point. The site is credited for their explosive global growth, yet the commercial exploitation of the social network is welcomed by fans. In true punk style the band claims no commercial motive. When asked in an interview with Prefix Magazine about the role of the MySpace site, they claimed that the site had originally been created by their fans. "We were on the news and radio about how MySpace has helped us. But that's just the perfect example of someone who doesn't know what the * they're talking about. We actually had no idea what it was."