There are many social networks, aimed at different users depending on their geographical location, age and interests.
Social networks appeared in the 2000s and came to symbolize the emergence of Web 2.0, a way of using the internet that places an emphasis on active participation by its users.
Perceived originally as a passing fad or as platforms reserved exclusively for younger generations, in just a few years social networks have become inescapable and are now used by every level of society. These virtual communities represent a large number of potential customers for companies.
There are many social networks, but they usually share a certain number of common options:
- The option of creating an account or profile comprising a certain amount of personal information.
- The option of sharing this information, along with photos and videos, with the virtual community.
- The option of adding members of the network to your list of “friends” or “followers”.
- The option of creating a group or page, and of creating and administrating events.
- The option of using apps created by associated publishers.
Although the best known and most used social network today is undoubtedly Facebook, other pioneers paved the way for it, with varying levels of success. Some (like Myspace) have survived, while others have practically disappeared or are aimed at niche markets. Here is an overview of the main players.
The most used social network, in September 2014, according to Facebook statistics, it brought together 864 million active users daily worldwide. Switzerland had 3.4 million active users at the end of 2014, i.e. nearly 40% of the population, according to the agency Bernet PR.
Created in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard student, the site was originally aimed exclusively at Harvard students before being extended to other American colleges and universities. Since February 2006, it has been open, free of charge, to anyone over the age of 13 who has a valid e-mail address. In a few years, this network has become the largest on the planet and was listed on the stock market in March 2012.
Facebook's main characteristic, and probably the reason for its phenomenal success, is that its users sign up using their real identity. This parameter – completely new in the world of the internet which had previously favored anonymity – gave the network a considerable advantage. On this platform, people group together by becoming “friends” with their acquaintances, colleagues or family members, whom they find under their real names.
Users can therefore be identified and invited to share information (text, photos, etc.) with people they know, to varying degrees, in their real life. The “like” function allows users to approve a friend’s status, photos or even a page or content from outside Facebook on sites which have integrated this function.
Companies have been quick to understand the benefits to be drawn from Facebook by creating pages describing their activities and products, offering competitions and videos, etc. In so doing, they gather maximum information about their virtual followers who are potential customers, while gaining significant advertising for themselves. The site also contains a large number of related apps designed by third-party companies which can be used directly on the platform.
Google+ enables its users to categorize their acquaintances into different circles; for example, “family”, “work”, “friends”, etc. Its Hangouts function allows videoconferencing on the site interface. Google+ also has a +1 Button, which works in a similar way to Facebook’s “like” function. The site also includes other Google account functions, such as identity certification. Google+ has over 540 million active users per month, according to the California-based company, but the number of web surfers actually visiting the social network is in fact much lower: users are counted because they use other Google products, which are all interconnected.
Unlike the general-interest Facebook, LinkedIn is a professional network. Created in 2002, it was listed on the stock market in 2011 and has over 330 million members worldwide. This network refers to “contacts” rather than friends, since it is a platform for exchange between professionals – usually executives and companies. The millions of registered profiles act as business cards, each containing details about a user's career and skill areas. Like Facebook, LinkedIn contains a large number of apps for various purposes.
Although it does not share most of the characteristics of the other social networks, Twitter is still comparable due to its number of users: over 280 million active users per month. Created in 2006, Twitter is a microblogging site which allows users to provide their followers with short messages (tweets) of fewer than 140 characters, a bit like statuses on Facebook (although those are not limited in length). These tweets can also contain external links directing users to articles, photos, videos, etc. Subscribers can be individuals or business names, such as companies, NGOs, etc. Since the arrival of celebrities or people with great authority, the site has developed a function making it possible to certify the tweeter’s identity and therefore, for example, to recognize the real Barack Obama from among the dozens of fake ones.
Once the leading social network, Myspace gave way a few years ago to the giant Facebook. The real pioneer of Web 2.0, Myspace was founded in 2003 and experienced its golden age between 2005 and 2008 before seeing its audience collapse. Re-launched in mid-2013 with a new visual identity, the site is presented today as a social entertainment platform and remains a reference for users active in the music industry.
Xing is a professional network, a direct competitor of LinkedIn, but is far from equal in terms of numbers. A large number of functions are solely reserved for paying members. Created in Hamburg, this network is particularly popular in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and can be useful for a company operating in German-speaking regions, such as German-speaking Switzerland.
A Facebook clone, copying its interface and design, VK (formerly Vkontakte, “in touch” in Russian) is a social network particularly popular in Russia and in countries of the former Soviet Union. Created in 2006, it has over 280 million registered users and dominates the Russian market. Its basic functionalities are very similar if not identical to Facebook’s, although with greater permissiveness regarding the sharing of illegal or pirated content. Originally only in Russian, VK is now available in many other languages.
Practically unknown in Europe, QZone is the Chinese equivalent of Facebook. It can be a wise choice for a company active in China. Founded in 2005, it has over 600 million active users per month. Other Chinese social networks are now fashionable, including the messaging application Wechat, the microblogging site Sina Weibo and the video-hosting platform Youku.
Image and video exchange platforms
Image and video exchange platforms can form an integral part of a company’s online marketing strategy. The leading sites in this area are YouTube, Vimeo and Vine for sharing videos and Flickr, Pinterest and particularly Instagram for photos. It should be noted that Instagram can now also host videos.
The blog, combining the terms “web” and “log”, is a very effective online communication tool. It presents articles from the most recent to the oldest (the latest posts are shown first). It is a kind of company diary. While a blog can be programmed entirely on a customized basis, there are also many pre-configured platforms which can be personalized to a great extent and which sometimes require a fee. A blog makes it possible to share all kinds of multimedia content, from text to sound to video.
Sources: Social network Internet sites; Réseaux Sociaux et Entreprise: les Bonnes Pratiques, Christine Balagué and David Fayon, Pearson, 2011; Le Marketing en Ligne, Jon Reed and Christine Balagué, Pearson, 2011.