The Internet has always been a form of social media. With no-one sharing content, there was no Internet.

As the web has evolved, so has society, as it’s wont to do, of course – and that’s meant moving online social engagement away from dingy, badly laid-out forums, and into the realms of shiny, bright, well laid-out forums – such as Facebook and Twitter.

It’s been an ugly journey – the first iterations of social media, such as, say, Second Life, seemed hell-bent on forcing users to recreate a real-life experience, armed only with a badly pixelated avatar and a handful of hilarious acronyms like lol.

With MySpace came the first social media giant in its current form.

Of course, MySpace has now passed over to the deathly realms of the Internet cemetery. As with so many technology-based products, it was, essentially, murdered. Facebook cut off MySpace’s head – leaving the ugly, spam-splattered, forum-style profiles behind – and bolted it firmly onto the body of nostalgic school-chum popularity that was FriendsReunited. The resulting Frankensteinic child has run amok all over the Internet ever since.

Twitter condensed the format even more – it’s just Facebook status updates with none of the holiday snaps or invites to banish a hat-wolf in CastleFaceville or wherever.

LinkedIn took business social – ambitious professionals need to network too, you know: and so far, they’ve signed up to LinkedIn in their millions.

Google+, the precocious newboy, still has work to do to gain ground on its more experienced, older forebears – but with Google pushing evermore for people to log in to their Google account before taking to the ‘net, the sewn-in benefits its introduced to G+ may make it indispensable sooner, rather than later.

Most internet marketing strategies now simply cannot ignore social media. It’s your own publishing platform – you can get messages out without an independent editors’ touch, get them right, and your ‘fans’ won’t even realise they’re adverts.

If you’re not already signed up to the ‘big four’ social networking sites, you might need to ask if you’re in the right business. Most people will have set up a profile on at least one of these social behemoths.

Unfortunately, though, the ‘big four’, like MySpace before them, are probably transient.

New social sites are springing up by the day, and, of the hundreds that appear, one or two inevitably attract a lot of attention.

The latest of these being Pinterest, the photo and interest pinboard site, and Microsoft’s offering, So.cl.

Few businesses actually possess the time and resources to have a presence on every new social networking site in the hope that it could prove useful.

It’s important to carefully evaluate social media marketing strategies – so you identify its realistic potential as a marketing tool before committing to the medium.

Pinterest is a good example of a new social sharing site. It has gained a lot of popularity in a very short space of time, and currently has 11.7 million active users.

It attracts a slightly different type of audience from the other well-used social sites – and, like Facebook in its first years, seems inherently popular with females.

It’s quickly become very popular as an Internet marketing tool – providing a perfect brand showcase opportunity, in a different format from the other sites. It’s far easier to attract someone to a Pinterest board than a Flickr stream, for example.

So.cl, on the other hand, has only really attracted interest because it is a Microsoft product.

In reality, it is a rather bland hybrid of Facebook, Twitter and Google+. As it was only launched in April 2012, it is difficult to gauge its current or potential popularity. Have you even heard of it?

Deciding whether or not to join new social networks has to be based on a number of different factors and businesses need to examine the social networks they are considering before asking themselves a series of pertinent questions, some of which are provided below.

How much time and resource are needed for social media marketing?

If your business has a social media management tool in place, this ought to be a relatively minor issue. If the new media has to be manually dealt with, the decision must be made as to whether it will negatively affect activities on other sites.

Who is currently using the site?

Unless the demographics of the particular site fit with your businesses’ target audience, the answer to this question is quite simple: do not bother.

If it is reaching out to a more widespread audience, the four ‘Ws’ must come into play: who are the users? What are they using it for? When are they using it? And why are they using it?

Importantly, you must also ask whether the users are capable of influencing the sector in which your business operates.

Ultimately, all of these questions will boil down to the one big one: will the time and resources required to have a presence on a social media site be reflected in the ROI? Is the cost of participation, even if is just personal time, actually going to generate sufficient leads to justify it?

Perhaps if the site looks as if it has potential, is showing steady growth and its current users seem to fit in with your business strategies and goals, it may be worth a trial run. Just keep a close eye on your Analytics along the way.

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About the author:

Alistair Harris is ClickThrough’s head of content. A double-award-winning senior journalist, Ali holds both the NCTJ and NCE qualifications and has more than ten years of experience in traditional press and PR. He has worked in digital marketing and SEO for the past three years and is passionate, enthusiastic and committed to quality.