As a marketing columnist, my finger is supposed to be firmly pressed on the pulse of what is new on the internet.
With so much happening in the arena of social networking, it's hard to make sense of it all. Facebook, Bebo, LinkedIn, Stumble Upon, MySpace, Flickr, Friend Feed, YouTube, Digg, Slideshare. Then there's blogs, podcasts, videos ...
My last column highlighted Belize tour operator Jimmy, successfully competing against the Goliaths of the cruise industry. One of his strategies was promoting and using favourable user-generated comments from travel sites. Anyone can understand the positive or negative impact on business from this type of social networking.
However, though I'm a marketer and a huge advocate of the net, I've been pretty skeptical about the business value of social networking sites.
Until late last year I viewed this arena as easy-to-make personal websites for the exceedingly egocentric - the place where people who have time on their hands go to post pictures about themselves, tell the world what they're up to, write about themselves or ramble through their stream of consciousness. If you read blogs, you'll find the good, meaty educational ones are rare. Let me put it this way: who has the time? Who the heck cares?
I subscribe to the philosophy of spending your time and energy on activities that provides the most profitable return on your investment. Remember the famous Jerry Maguire line: "Show me the money".
If your market is the same as mine - mature business decision-makers with money - they are not spending their time on social media sites, at least not for business. They don't have the time. If they're there, it's primarily to stay in touch, view photos and connect with their children.
My bias was borne out by a study last month by Pew and American International on the percentage of US internet users who have a profile on a social networking site (see table).
The study found that most adults use the sites for personal rather than professional purposes . About half were on MySpace, under a quarter on Facebook and only 6 per cent on Linkedin. Almost 90 per cent use them to keep up with friends, 57 per cent to make social plans and 49 per cent to make friends.
The social site I considered the biggest waste of time was Twitter. You send short messages (called tweets) from the site to announce what you're doing at that moment. It's like a text message - maximum 140 characters. You can download little programs like Twitterific or Twinkle so you get the tweets as text messages on your cellphone or computer.
Your audience comprises friends and admirers whom you have persuaded to subscribe. Can you see why anyone with a family, mortgage, or busy job would consider this an unbelievable waste of time? Who cares who's waiting for the handyman to arrive? Who has the time to continually tweet and read those of hundreds of others?
This was my argument during breakfast the other week in Manhattan. Over coffee and crunchy French toast on 7th Ave and 57th, David Berkowitz and I were discussing Twitter. David is director of emerging media and client strategy at 360i. With clients like NBC, MTV, American Express and Office Depot, I valued his point of view and was ready to listen.
"Debbie, where did you go for news about the plane that crashed on the Hudson River yesterday?" he asked.
"I was on Canal St shopping and saw it on a TV, but I suppose I would go to the TV, or on the internet a newspaper website or Google it," I replied.
"I went to search.twitter.com. There were thousands of tweets, people sharing what was happening. Because the best links and information gets re-tweeted, it comes out higher in the rankings. I was able to immediately know and see exactly what was happening before the media sites."
He also had a rebuttal for me about the handyman tweet. "Comcast [a cable TV company] wanted to improve their customer service reputation. So they would search through Twitter to find what their customers were saying about them.
"If they saw someone that said the Comcast cable repairman was one hour late, they would reply to the Tweet asking for an email address, then they'd get in contact with the individual to try to sort it out. This activity would work a double benefit of generating good word of mouth."
Point taken. Twitter is good for real-time information, research and monitoring what is being said about you or your company. I joined Linkedin in early December, started a blog (http://blog.successis.co.nz) and will now start putting up three years of one-minute videos I produced on my YouTube account. I'll keep you posted.
Percentage of US internet users with a social networking profile:
18-24 year olds - 75 per cent
25-34 - 57 per cent
35-44 - 30 per cent
45-54 - 19 per cent
55-64 - 10 per cent
65+ - 7 per cent
Source: Pew / American International
Debbie Mayo-Smith is a best-selling author and international speaker.