It seems everyone is social networking. Or are they?

When you’re in the world of marketing — reading about it, planning campaigns, researching people — it’s sometimes easy to overlook the basics. So we started our study by simply asking ‘do you know what online social networking is?’.

And that’s where our first myth was debunked. It turns out social networking is not taking over the world. Across the 17 markets surveyed, 42% of people know what online social networking is, which leaves 58% in the dark… either saying ‘no’ or ‘don’t know’.

The Dutch were most likely to know the term with 89% answering ‘yes’, followed by Japan at 71% and Americans with 70% answering in the affirmative. Still, that leaves three in every ten Americans (the home of social networking) outside the world of digital friends and relationships.

Synovate’s Senior Vice President of the US-based Consumer Insights group, Bob Michaels, says, “While a majority of Americans have access to computers there are still others, particularly seniors and immigrants, who do not. Online social networking just is not part of their world.”

The implications for marketers are clear and, yes, basic. Know your audience. But you knew that.

Who’s in the in-crowd?

If you don’t know what social networking is, chances are you’re not a member of a site! Synovate looked into who were members of sites, or not, and which sites they belonged to. Perhaps the biggest out-take here is the debunking of myth number two. Social networking is definitely not US-centric.

Overall, 26% across the markets surveyed are members of social networking sites. This peaked with the Netherlands at 49%, United Arab Emirates (UAE) at 46%, Canada at 44% and the US at 40% (though keep in mind that’s 40% of a huge population).

Synovate’s Managing Director for the UAE, George Christodoulides, says: “The popularity in the UAE makes sense. It is a place that’s very connected to the world; a hub for cultures, business and people.”

“These sites also offer a way for people to meet – online – in a society where traditionally men and women don’t always mix freely.”

Rob Myers, Managing Director of Synovate in Canada, says: “Canada has a very high level of broadband penetration… higher than the US, so social networking can be done efficiently. Given this we are usually early adopters of all things web. At the end of 2007, Toronto claimed more Facebook members than any city in the world and they were not all young students.”

Sites of choice

The survey then asked social networkers to name the sites they belong to. Some markets seemed to favour multiple memberships and some seemed to stick to one or two major ones. The markets where social networking aficionados favour signed up for many sites are UAE, India, Indonesia, and Bulgaria.

Robby Susatyo, Managing Director of Synovate in Indonesia, says: “It’s a snowball. It’s considered cool to have multiple membership because it shows that you are following the trend.”

Showing the vast array of social networking niches, our open-ended question about site membership attracted responses naming around 150 sites across the 17 markets surveyed, but naturally some sites stood out as more popular.

Almost unanimously, 91% of Japanese social networkers are on a Japanese-language site called mixi. Synovate’s Managing Director of Japan, Rika Fujiki, points out that attitudes and thinking on social networking are impacted by the site that created the boom in each market. “In Japan, social networking has become very popular in a short period of time due to mixi, especially among younger people.

“One of the major features of mixi is that it’s invitation only. Because of this feature, mixi’s networks are based on friendship in the real world. So it’s not used the way some sites are… it’s not for broadening networks, rather for strengthening existing networks.”

Privacy and predators

But the survey was not all about debunking myths. It also confirmed facts. Like, privacy concerns and fear of strangers remain barriers to complete online comfort for a great many of our respondents.

Overall, just over half our respondents who are members of social networking sites (51%) agreed that online social networking has its dangers. The Brazilians were the most nervous about online social networking with 79% agreeing there is danger, followed by the US (69%) and Poland (62%). Least concerned are Indians on 19%.

Nervy networkers’ biggest concerns were lack of privacy (37%) closely followed by lack of security for children (32%).

The Dutch were the most concerned about privacy at 54% and lack of security for children was the biggest worry for Americans with 62% of respondents nominating it.

We also asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “I feel comfortable giving out personal details on social networking sites” and found that this makes most people, even those who are social networkers, uncomfortable. Of the group who are members of social networking sites, only 26% are comfortable giving out personal details. This is led by 71% of Serbians and 57% of Indians.

But the more interesting finding is the unease among social networkers. 85% of Japanese and German social networkers were uncomfortable handing out details, followed by 83% in Taiwan, 79% in Canada, 77% in Brazil and South Africa and 70% in Poland and the US.

Harald Hasselman, Managing Director of Synovate in Germany says: “Data protection is a huge issue in the German media at the moment and very top-of-mind for online Germans. Germans are extremely sensitive about giving personal data to strangers or even organisations.”

Something that US-based Bob Michaels reiterates… “Identity theft continues to be a major problem in the US so handing out any personal information online is going to make people wary. Another growing issue in the US is online defamation – posting negative and sometimes untrue information about someone else online – so people are becoming more and more careful about the information they share and who they share it with.”

Poking around social media attitudes

In a series of attitudinal statements we asked whether people agreed or disagreed with statements about communication, language and friendship. The findings well and truly explode the myth that online social networking is all-consuming.

Synovate’s global head of media research, Steve Garton, says that respondents who are members of social networking sites have a balanced on- and offline existence.

“Most people online, regardless of culture, have a very strong appreciation of being in the real world. Their attitudes and behaviour show us that the virtual world of social networking can complement relationships, but not replace them. There is no substitute for real life, real friends and real relationships.”

Findings for each statement include:

“Online communication is as meaningful as face-to-face communication.”

Not surprisingly, when you look at the results for people who are members of social networking sites versus those who are not, you get big differences. Forty percent of people who engage in social networking agree that online communication can be just as meaningful, versus 26% of people who are not members of any of these sites.

“Online social networking is better than not interacting at all.”

Members of social networking sites are far more likely to agree (75%) than non-members at 51%. Highest agrees among social networkers are France (86%), Indonesia (84%) and the US and Russia (both 83%).

Comparatively few Taiwanese agreed. Indeed, social networkers were fairly split on the issue and Synovate’s Managing Director in Taiwan, Jenny Chang, attributes this to the spread across ages. “In Taiwanese society there is a constant merging of the old and the new – and sometimes these clash… particularly around strong traditions like eating together, socialising, worship and dedication to family. While Taiwan’s youth is connected in the online world, older Taiwanese may see this as being at the expense of other family and social commitments.

“It’s easier to make friends online than in person.”

Among social networkers in the markets surveyed, almost half (46%) agree with the statement. Only 28% of non-social networkers agreed. Highest agrees among social networkers were Taiwan (65%) and India (64%); most likely to disagree were social networkers in Russia (74%) and Japan (66%).

“I get more enjoyment from my online friendships than my friendships in the ‘real’ world.”

When you look at people who are members of social networking sites, only 14% agree. Highest agrees come from UAE (37%), Indonesia (36%), India (32%) and South Africa (24%).

Twenty-one percent agree in Taiwan and Jenny Chang says: “As well as indoor time and online access, cultural and social constraints may well feed this attitude in Taiwan. Many young people live at home with parents until they are married and tend to have more family and work commitments. Online friendships are likely to offer a form of escapism for some Taiwanese.”

Synovate’s Group Client Services Director in South Africa, Jake Orpen, suggests: “This may be because it’s easier to be friends online than in the real world. It is easier and quicker to communicate. And you can be ‘yourself’ more easily online.”

The highest disagrees among social networking members were Germany at 97%, Serbia 96% and Japan at 92%. Harald Hasselman says: “Personal friendship has a very high value in Germany. Germans take some time to make friends, and when they do, it is seen as serious and basically ‘forever’ so online friendships can seem quite superficial by comparison.”

“I am losing interest in online social networking.”

Of the social networking site members, 36% agree with the statement, led by Japan (55%), Slovakia (48%), Canada (47%), Poland and the US (45%).

Japan’s Rika Fujiki says: “As social networking became very popular in a very short period of time, there’s bound to be some temporariness. When mixi was hottest, everybody invited his or her friends. Then, even if someone did not have that much interest in social networking, they joined the site. Of course that does not last long.

“Also the fact that their online friends are also their real friends means that many people revert to face-to-face communication.

“Some people in Japan are also moving onto the next thing… social networking via mobile phone. It’s becoming hot among younger people… it’s attractive to Japanese because it does not require a reply and is regarded as a less pressured form of communication.”

Is social media a marketing dream?

Assuming you have determined that many of your target market are, indeed, social networkers and you know where they can be found, is it worth getting your brand online? Synovate’s global head of media research, Steve Garton, says an emphatic ‘yes’, but do it quietly…

“These strategies work best when the brand listens to social networkers, insinuating the product or service into lots of quiet conversations. One example is BMW on Facebook, where people can drive the car themselves and invite their friends… virtually of course.

“Brands do not want to be overt here.”

We asked social networkers around the world whether they noticed site sponsors, advertisements and interactive profile pages. The results were encouraging.

Overall, 53% of social networkers notice site sponsors. In good news for the sponsors, these seem to have the greatest impact in the US (where 66% notice), Serbia (65%) and Russia and Germany (both 64%). Bob Michaels says: “Americans go straight to the web when looking for information about products and services. When they do, they like to know which companies and organisations are associated with the site so they can judge if the information they are viewing is credible.”

In addition, two thirds of site members notice advertisements for products. They are most noticed in Indonesia (86%), Poland (83%) and South Africa and Germany (both 80%). They are least noticed in the Netherlands (52%), Taiwan (49%) and France (40%).

Thirty-one percent of social networkers notice interactive profile pages featuring brands, but 26% say they don’t know whether they do or not, so these results are a little more opaque. These pages are most likely to be noticed in Serbia (69%) and Indonesia (61%). Robby Susatyo of Indonesia says: “This makes sense given that so many people in Indonesia are ‘brand-minded’. They aspire to owning goods with an internationally-reputed brand.”



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