Social media is clearly high on the agenda over at Google. In the last few days alone, Google has rolled out social network Buzz to all Gmail users and bought fledgling social Q&A tool Aardvark for £32 million. And don't forget that the technology giant is still testing the much-hyped social collaboration tool Google Wave.
But despite this hive of activity, Google is clearly still playing catch-up. Social networking may have only been around for a few years but it has taken off in spectacular fashion and online marketing professionals have been quick to exploit its potential for spreading messages at unprecedented speed. In particular, three social networks increasingly seem to dominate the thoughts of businesses when it comes to online marketing. Here, we look at the relative merits of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Number of users: 400 million (internal figures from Facebook)
Best suited to: B2C and C2C online marketing
Pros: Facebook is by far the biggest social network. To give you some sense of scale, if it was a separate country, it would have the third largest population in the world behind China and India. This makes it an obvious choice for B2C online marketing professionals who want to get their message out to the maximum number of people possible.
Cons: In reality, Facebook marketing is not simply a case of broadcasting to 400 million. Users spend the vast majority of their time on profile pages and newsfeeds, chatting with friends in private networks rather than in public areas. It's true that Facebook relaxed its privacy settings at the end of last year. And some public pages and groups have generated huge levels of interest (the Coca-Cola Facebook page has just topped 5 million fans). But generally speaking, Facebook is a private social network, requiring plenty of legwork to get noticed through C2C online marketing.
Number of users: 60 million (internal figures from LinkedIn)
Best suited to: B2B online marketing
Pros: LinkedIn is a distinctly business-oriented social network. Users are invited to post details of their career history, academic qualifications, professional achievements, specialist skills and so on. From an online marketing perspective, this makes it possible to run highly targeted B2B campaigns that can get businesses on the radar of hard-to-reach decision makers and high flyers.
Cons: Most members don't check their LinkedIn profiles as frequently as Facebook and Twitter, making it less suitable for urgent requests. LinkedIn also has another potential pitfall in that people almost exclusively use the site for business networking purposes. Because of this, it can be tricky for online marketing experts to create long-term bonds or emotional attachments with users.
Number of users: 75 million users (external figures from The Metric System)
Best suited to: B2B, B2C and C2C online marketing
Pros: Twitter is by far the most open social network. By doing away with the system of making and confirming friend requests (Facebook) or connections (LinkedIn), Twitter lets users instantly follow accounts that interest them. It also straddles the divide between B2B and B2C online marketing. Online marketing professionals can find hard-to-reach B2B leads on specialist Twitter lists or follow everybody for maximum B2C penetration, all the while enjoying C2C exposure via retweeting.
Cons: Twitter engagement is notoriously uneven – it's estimated that only 20 per cent of accounts have tweeted ten times or more, while only 17 per cent tweeted at all in December 2009. Another problem is that the most recent posts always rank at the top of Twitter feeds, meaning important updates get buried all too quickly. The alternative is to tweet repeatedly or to @ users directly, but overuse of either strategy risks getting your account unfollowed.