Posted by: Douglas Macmillan on January 14, 2009
It’s tempting to compartmentalize social networking sites by the demographic groups most closely associated with them: MySpace is a party for teenagers, Facebook is for a hangout for college students, and LinkedIn is a conference for working professionals. But a steady influx of adult Internet users to all of these sites is altering their makeup at a surprising rate, according to a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The research group found that some 35% of online adults now have at least one profile on a social networking site, more than quadruple the amount that did in February 2005, when the figure was 8%. Compared with teenagers – who flocked to these sites early on but then slowed down in adoption – the number of grown-ups jumping on the social media bandwagon has roughly doubled every 18 months over the past four years.
Online advertisers, are you listening? Sites like MySpace, found to be used by half of social networking adults, are now a viable place to pitch mature consumers with discretionary income – many of whom are not obsessed with Justin Timberlake or Twilight. Yet kiddy-geared ads continue to dominate the site.
“As you start to see more adults in social networking, I think [marketers] will have to respond,” says Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst with eMarketer. They want to be where their customers are. Williamson does allow that young people are currently much more engaged with these sites, while many older adults tend to join them “as a novelty,” to connect with old friends, and check back irregularly. But over the next couple years, she expects adults to spend more time on social networks.
Another surprising finding in Pew’s study is the prevalence of minority groups on social sites. The portion of African-American adults with an online social profile (48%) as well as non-white Hispanics (43%) both eclipse the portion of white adults on the site, just 31%. As Pew senior research specialist Amanda Lenhart points out, that’s mainly due to the fact that 18-24 year-olds, by the far the most socially wired group in the study, are more diverse in makeup – because of higher birthrates among minority groups, immigration, and other factors. Still, “those numbers are a reality,” she says.
With many brands ramping up efforts to court minority groups online, social networks appear to be a good place to start. I spoke with Marla Skiko, who heads up digital innovation at global ad agency Starcom Mediavest Group’s multicultural unit, Tapestry, and she said she’s noticed a “huge uptick” in the number of consumers her campaigns target using online social networks – particularly Latinos. “We are bringing more ideas in the social environment to our clients, and we hope that those platforms continue to refine their ability to target our consumer,” she says. MySpace Latino, a site launched by New Corp. last Spring, has already proved to be a valuable tool for reaching Hispanics online.
The audience is there, the verdict is out: Is social media a viable channel for online ads? If anything, these numbers give Web sites like Facebook, which have struggled to refine a business model, more time to find out. "If you saw usage rates stagnating, it would start to look like a fad," says eMarketer's Williamson. "As long as more people use social networks, the more time they have to develop that model."