Many nonprofit fundraisers and communicators are getting deeper into exploring the potential of online social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Here are two timely studies that look more closely at visitors/users of these sites and their potential value. Serious online marketers should take a look.

Forrester Research has developed a typology for characterizing participation in online social networking activities, called the “ladder of participation.” Here's a peak (the full study is available for purchase):

(For a higher resolution version of this diagram, click here.) Note of course that 52% of American online consumers (“Inactives”) have not participated yet in the social networking phenomenon at all. Still, there's no question that the buzz about sites like these is justified. Even the sites that originally attracted the under-30 crowd have been creeping steadily up the age scale. That means more and more nonprofit donors are getting familiar with and using the sites.

And what is the value of all this online social networking?

A new study called “Never-Ending Friending” by Fox-owned MySpace and agency Carat USA attempts to answer that question in greater depth, going beyond the basic reach and visitor stats. This impressive research looked at nearly 3,000 US internet users, as well as data from clients who have used MySpace for marketing campaigns.

What this study is trying to get at is the value of, for example, an Adidas online evangelist adorning his MySpace home page with Adidas-branded wallpaper. Do his friends take note? Are they impressed? How valuable is this to Adidas? How do they factor this into their ROI in assessing the campaign.

The researchers point to a “Momentum Effect” where these cumulative qualitative impacts take on greater value than a mere eyeball count would suggest. One strategist suggests that 70% of the value of a campaign originating on a social networking site might be attributable to the Momentum Effect.

More than 40% of social networkers say they use the sites to learn more about brands and products, and 28% say that a friend has recommended a brand or product to them through such a site. Most social networkers use the sites to connect with family and existing friends as opposed to meeting new people. Hence, perhaps, the special referral influence of these sites.

All of this is relevant to nonprofit marketers as you assess whether the time (and audience) is right for your organization to step up its own presence in the social networking arena.

Roger & Tom

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