But this is missing the point because marketers aren't telling anyone why the heck they should do so.
Enter a new study from user-experience research firm Nielsen Norman Group on "College Students on the Web." (Yes, I shelled out the $128 for the full report and the insights it provides are definitely worth the money.)
The news reported by Online Media Daily earlier this week, "Social Networks No Place For Marketing To College Crowd," runs contrary to our marketing sensibility when it comes to social media. We know that college students are heavy social media users. The report confirms this. The college students they observed keep a Facebook or MySpace tab open throughout the day. Problem is, they think of these social networks as a place to socialize with friends and family. They aren't making the mental leap as to why they would want to click these links and they don't understand how these social sharing buttons littered throughout the Internet help them!
Which means that marketers, by in large, have fallen victim to non sequitur (Latin for "it does not follow"). According to Wikipedia, non sequitur "is an argument in which its conclusion does not follow from its premises." In modern marketing communications, the argument might sound like this, "College students use Facebook, therefore, they will want to connect with us on Facebook." (The same could be said for YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, text messaging or anything other emerging technology.)
But as I read the report from Nielsen Norman Group, it struck me that we have done a pretty poor job explaining the value that they can derive from making this connection. They are wondering:
"What will happen when I share something?"
""Do my friends care?"
"Are they trying to use me?"
"Why should I even pay attention to these links?"
We need to address these questions. Of course, this may all simply be a matter of familiarity. But another interesting observation from the study was that college students aren't all the technology sophisticates that we stereotype them as (engineering and computer science majors aside). Today's college students are digital natives that have learned a few things we need to take into account:
1) "Feedback from my friends is always close." College students may not want to inadvertently promote a company, but they do appreciate input from friends they trust. Instead of simply sticking a "Share This" button in their face, try prompting them by asking, "Want to get feedback from your friends before you buy? Post this to Facebook and see what they have to say."
2) "If I can't find what I am looking for fast, look somewhere else." Gen Y sometimes gets labeled "impatient." I prefer "efficient." They have grown up online with immediate access to information. The only real challenge is determining which site will give it to them succinctly without any hassles. If your site is difficult to navigate or doesn't provide clear and concise answers to their questions, they will open another tab, start a new search, and go somewhere else. State problems, present clear solutions, and don't let unnecessary links get in the way.
3) "There are companies that are honest, and those that will try to trick you." It has been said that the Internet brings out both the best and worst in humanity. Gen Y has grown up learning to navigate this reality. As marketers, that means that everything on our sites runs through a filter that asks, "Is this company honest or not?" If your content is buried between advertisements or littered with social sharing links, then your integrity may be called into question. They appreciate ad supported business models, they just want a clear distinction between your content, advertising, and social media plug-ins. Keep your content clean.
For the college crowd, tying into social media can be very effective. Social media provides an unprecedented opportunity for the amplification of our marketing efforts. However, this requires education and a clear explanation of the associated benefits, especially for Gen Y consumers. Yes, they are social, but even more, they are attuned to good, efficient design and they are counting on us to give them clear explanations for the benefits they will reap from each and every action we ask them to take.