The Appeal of B2B Social Networks

Eric Schwartzman and I are wrapping up the manuscript for Social Marketing to the Business Customer, which will be published by John Wiley & Sons in January. This following excerpt is from the chapter on B2B communities. I welcome your feedback by e-mail or by commenting on the blog entry.

Online communities are a bit of a paradox. They are both the oldest form of social media and also the newest. Forums and discussion groups date back to the late 1960s and have been a staple of customer support operations at technology companies for 30 years. Internet newsgroups, CompuServe, The Well and other early communities had membership in the hundreds of thousands a decade before anyone had heard of a Web browser.

Those early online outposts looked little like the Facebooks and LinkedIns of today, though. The modern features that have made social networks the fastest-growing consumer phenomenon in history have created all kinds of new use scenarios, including some compelling B2B examples. Communities are the convention centers of social media. They are flexible gathering halls that can fill a wide variety of purposes ranging from product development to lead generation. The key is to get members to want to participate.

Friends and Fame

The great innovation in online communities came in 1998, when introduced the concept of personal profiles and friends. Those metaphors are now a staple of every social network and provide a powerful incentive for participation. Profiles are a member’s personal homepage. Everything the member contributes, from establishing contacts with others to joining groups to posting status updates, is captured in the profile. The more active the member is, the higher his visibility and the greater the value of the network to his personal success.

Friends are a virtual version of their real-world equivalent. When people create friend relationships, they exchange information that is not visible to others and they form persistent connections based upon trust. That’s actually how it works in real life, too. At their simplest level, friends connections are an efficient way to stay in touch. Members can always learn each other’s current address or job situation by searching within the network.

In B2B communities, personal profiles are a way to register areas of expertise that others may find useful. Activity
is also a validation point. It’s one thing for someone to say he is an expert in direct marketing, but it’s more powerful when he can prove it by solving the problems of other direct marketers.

That proof is stored in the person’s profile. Online friendships also translate fluidly into real-world connections. “Community isn’t just about discussing products but about getting to know each other and making friendships,” says Nicholas Tolstoshev, a Spiceworks community manager.

Online friends in B2B communities frequently arrange meet-ups at trade shows and events. Successful community managers we spoke to invariably augmented their online worlds with physical events to meet and thank their most active members.

Prior to the introduction of personal profiles, it was difficult for participants in online networks to build visibility. Recent experience has shown that visibility is the single most powerful driver of participation. Many communities use a recognition system that ties a member’s status to contributions. A few, like SAP, celebrate their most active members at physical events.

Spiceworks awards points to members who post well-regarded answers to other members’ questions. Valued members of the community are invited to participate in conference calls with Spiceworks developers. Their contributions are rewarded with low-cost swag like T-shirts but more importantly with inside information. Community managers also publish occasional interviews with featured members, highlighting their contributions and career accomplishments. “Online status drives a huge amount of activity without our sending money out the door,” says Tolstoshev., a social network for food service professionals, highlights new contributions by its members on its home page and invites others to congratulate them on their celebrity. TopCoder, a contract software developer that hosts programming competitions and licenses the best solutions to commercial customers, applies an elaborate algorithm to the code submitted by its members to compute the quality of their work. Leader boards are maintained for the major competitions and quality ratings are reflected back to individual profiles. Top coders win money and also visibility that leads to jobs and lucrative contracts.

The most prolific contributor to LinkedIn’s “Answers” forum is Dave Maskin, a New York-based event marketing specialist who has answered an incredible 25,000 questions. Maskin refers to himself as “Mr. Lead Generator,” indicating that the value he provides to the community is good for his business.

How to Integrate E-mail and Social Media Marketing

As hot a topic as social media has become, the fact is that most of us still live in our inboxes. The challenge for e-mail marketers is to incorporate new tools into their programs as a way to gain subscribers and deliver messages through additional channels. I just finished creating a brand-new presentation on this topic entitled “Social Marketing With Email.” Click here to see it on SlideShare. I’d be pleased to present it to your e-mail marketers or local professional organization either on-site or remotely. Please contact me if you’re interested.

Meet Me In NYC

I’ll be in the Big Apple a lot in June and July. Here are some upcoming events where I’m on the program. Please come and say hi:

Tip of the Week: Maximixing Follower Value

Most people send Twitter messages whenever the spirit moves them, but that may not always be the best time to get those coveted retweets. To maximize the impact of what you say on Twitter, schedule your tweets to coincide with the times when you have a lot of followers online.

Twitter Analyzer is a great tool for analyzing follower activity. It can show you the times of day when your follower count is highest. Then you can use a tool like HootSuite or the latest version of TweetDeck to schedule tweets for the times when your messages are most likely to be seen (and forwarded). If you have international followers, you may find that they cluster around different times of the day than your working hours, so scheduling tweets for the middle of the night Milwaukee time may be just the ticket to reach that cluster of fans in Norway. Start with Twitter Analyzer and see what times work best for you.

Just for Fun: Eight Years in 103 Seconds

When we see people regularly, we don’t notice how much they change. But they do change a lot in a short time. JK Keller proved it. He took a picture of his face every day for 8 years and lined them up one after another in this video montage. This 1:43 video might leave you feeling a little old. Take your mind off it by looking at Photos That Will Never Be in Your Wedding Album.

Social Network Adoption Races Ahead

Awareness, Inc., which has been in the social media software market for several years, has just come out with a new research report on enterprise adoption of Web 2.0. There are some interesting findings that I wanted to share with you. You can download the entire report after filling out a short registration form.

My basic take-away is that social media tools are ripping through the enterprise with amazing speed. Whether used internally, externally with open enrollment or externally with invitation-only enrollment, social networks are proliferating as business tools. Some highlights:

  • The number of organizations that allow employees to use social networks for business purposes has increased dramatically to 69% in 2008 from 37% last year;
  • More than six in 10 companies are using social media to build and promote their brands, improve communication and increase consumer engagement;
  • There has been a fivefold increase in the percentage of employees who use popular social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn for business purposes, from 15% in 2007 to 75% this year;
  • While only a tiny percentage of organizations are currently using internal communities, one in three plans to use them in the future;
  • A quarter of respondents say their companies are planning to deploy external-facing communities, which is double last year’s total;
  • Some 37% of organizations plan to focus communities on specialty areas where they can provide focused business value;
  • More than 40% of respondents report using one or more of the following tools: user groups, tags, communities, blogs, social networking and videos;
  • The most popular internal tools are social networks, blogs and wikis, with adoption rates of between 50% and 55%;
  • Seven in 10 respondents say their companies plan to deploy external blogs.
One of the most notable trends this research reveals is the rapid acceptance of social networking not only for marketing and customer support, but also for employee communications. When you consider that Facebook was barely known outside of the academic realm just two years ago, the acceptance of this technology for internal knowledge management is remarkable.

I’m also intrigued by the findings that seven in 10 businesses allow employees to use social media during business hours. This is a big change in corporate attitude. In the first couple of years of social media, businesses moved slowly to permit employees to speak outside the company walls. There were fears about people revealing company secrets or saying inappropriate things in public forums. Those fears appear to have largely melted away.

The lack of horror stories combined with the powerful utility of features like LinkedIn’s Answers forum are clearly overwhelming these reservations. It turns out that when you give people the freedom to speak on behalf of the company and combine that freedom with clear guidelines about what’s appropriate to say, the vast majority do the right thing.

This is inspiring and affirming. It may be an unanticipated benefit of social media acceptance, but it is a very welcome one.

Caveats: Any research conducted over the Internet needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The Awareness survey accumulated responses from 160 people, of whom 27.5% were from large companies and 40% were at a management level. Awareness says statistical accuracy is +/- 7%. Awareness also has a vested interest in promoting acceptance of social networks. However, the company used an independent research partner, Equation Research, to conduct the survey and I don’t think it has any incentive to fudge the results.

While I Talked, People Twittered

Have you ever had an audience comment loudly on what you were speaking about while you were actually speaking? I did this week, and I found the experience to be weird, invigorating and a little bit scary.

The scene was the New Marketing Boot Camp, a seminar I conducted with Chris Brogan and CrossTech Media. The group was the most tech-savvy I have addressed in some time. About a half-dozen of the members were using Twitter, the short-message microblogging service that inspires a fanatical following.

Sitting down after my presentation, I was able to call up and read what people had been saying while I talked. Most of them simply summarized points I made, but a few added their opinions, and not all of those opinions were complimentary.

I can tell you that the act of presenting to a group that is actively talking about you requires new skills. Simply knowing that thoughts are being exchanged can be flustering; the tendency is to speak to the people in the room who you know are documenting your talk, hoping to get an inkling of what they’ll say. There’s also a certain ego-drive voyeurism that comes from this kind of instant feedback. I found myself wanting to hustle back to my computer to get the online evaluations of what I had just said!

There was a famous story at the South by Southwest Conference last March in which a keynote session was disrupted by negative Twitter messages from some members of the audience. In that case, the speakers were in the difficult position of having those comments actually scroll across a public screen while they were on stage. That was an extreme case, but an increasing number of events are incorporating Twitter conversations into the experience by encouraging attendees to share messages with each other using specific tags or keywords.

Like most new technology developments, there are both good and bad sides to this new form of instant feedback. On the positive side, speakers and conference organizers need as much audience reaction as they can get, and the sooner the better. Having recently waited six months to get audience evaluations from one presentation, I can tell you that the immediacy of the tweeted feedback was wonderful. I was able to use it to get a read quickly on the tech-saviness of the audience and adjust accordingly for the rest of the day. Hopefully, that was a good thing for everyone.

The major downside of this trend that I see is that real-time feedback from a small number of people can force a speaker to unintentionally focus on trying to please that vocal few. This is dangerous if the small but loud group isn’t representative of the majority of listeners. It’s human nature to fixate on criticism, and focusing on the comments of a few audience members can throw a presenter off track. The feedback is great, but keep it in perspective.

I’m telling you this because many of you work in the technology industry. You will soon find (if you haven’t already) that attendees to your meetings and events will use tools like Twitter to share their observations. Encourage this. Ask attendees to use Twitter’s hash function (#) to label their messages for your event. Use to filter their comments and save the search query as an RSS feed so you can collect all this feedback in one stream or even display it on a public screen.

However, Twitter feeds aren’t a replacement for the tried-and-true tactics of feedback forms and post-conference surveys. Real-time impressions can be incomplete and misleading, so take them with a grain of salt. But seek all the feedback you can. Your presentation or event will only be better for it.

Let a Thousand Networks Bloom

News that the American Bowling Congress will launch a social network arrived last week, raising the question of whether this social networking thing has gone just a little too far. There are, after all, nearly 2,700 social networks on the Internet according to Facebook and MySpace together command over 85% of social networking traffic, so what’s the point of starting another?

This is just the beginning, folks.The boring job of picking the social network winners is already done, and now the action shifts to the small communities where innovation can really flourish.

I’ll give you one example. About two years ago, my wife Dana and I took up geocaching. It’s a global game that uses global positioning satellites (GPS) technology to create a worldwide treasure hunt. Players use handheld GPS receivers to find containers full of trinkets placed by other enthusiasts in locations ranging from city street corners to remote mountaintops. People log their finds on a website and try to make up elaborate clues for others to unravel.

Dana and I became so captivated by this game and the culture that has grown up around it that we decided to write a book about it. In the process of interviewing some of the most active and successful geocachers in the world, we’ve come upon some remarkable stories.

People have told us that geocaching has brought their families together, introduced them to new friends and reinvigorated their lives. One man credited the game with helping him shed 150 pounds and give up smoking. Several have said it saved their marriages. One disabled war veteran even told me geocaching gave him a reason to live at a time when he was contemplating suicide.

The online street corner for caching enthusiasts is a website called This is where people can log their discoveries and share their stories. People go there to seek out others and start relationships that may develop online or in one of more than 100 local geocaching clubs around the U.S.

There are probably a couple of million people who love to geocache. That number is a rounding error on MySpace’s member list, but for active geocachers, it’s a lifeline so strong that enthusiasts often put their personal safety in the hands of other geocachers they’ve never even met. It’s a perfect example of a micro community.

There are two points to this story. The first is that small communities tend to be more engaged than large ones. The more time and effort someone has invested in learning a craft, skill or sport, the more passionate he or she is likely to be about it. People at Communispace,a company that manages private communities for corporate customers, tell me that they advise their clients to break up communities into smaller subgroups once their membership surpasses a few hundred. Think of it: No one is particularly passionate about Facebook, but they may be very engaged with communities within Facebook. Small is beautiful.

Secondly, the folks at didn’t set out to organize an existing community. They created the community. It was almost impossible for people to play the game until a resource existed to coordinate their efforts. This is a great example of the Internet actually enabling special interests to flourish.

Have social networks gone too far? On the contrary, they haven’t gone nearly far enough.

Why Social Networks Work

Last fall, I shared a lunch table with a group of Twitter enthusiasts at a social media event. One of them said something that crystallized perfectly the reason that social networks have taken the world by storm.

My lunchtime companion was a career public relations professional who had grown up reading an assortment of daily newspapers. They were his principal news source. Since adopting Twitter, however, he had stopped reading newspapers almost entirely. The service they had historically provided — directing him to the most important stories of the day — had shifted to his network of online friends. He now relied upon his contacts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sources to tell him what was interesting and what should matter.

Bolt From the Blue
This insight was a bolt from the blue for me because it summed up the reasons people are shifting so rapidly to friends networks and away from conventional media. Think of your own reading habits. Chances are you get several newsletters each day from various trusted sources. You also probably get the occasional e-mail from your friends pointing you to interesting stories on the Web. Which of these messages are you likely to open first? Which are you faster to click on? If you’re like most people, the message from the friend is always going to get your most immediate attention.

We trust our friends because we know them and they know us. Whether we’ve shared a workplace, a living space or some other experience with them, we have given them insight into our interests and motivations that no institution can match. Professional editors are very good at assessing relevance, determining importance and creating hierarchies of information, but they don’t know us as people. We’ll never let them in like we let in our friends.

Life Feeds
Facebook pioneered a concept called the News Feed that has been widely adopted by other networks. When you log on to Facebook, you’re treated to an immediate stream of information about other people in your network. You immediately know about changes in their lives, where they’ve gone on vacation and what project they’re working on. You also know what they’re reading, what conferences they’re attending and what they think you should be reading and attending. By virtue of their familiarity with you, they have a higher priority in your life. Other services like FriendFeed have expanded this idea to a broad range of online services. Twitter adds immediacy and certain intimacy that the other services don’t.

The “friending” feature of social networks is the single most important factor underlying their success. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for marketers. The challenge is to get behind the many walls that people have thrown up around themselves to screen out marketing messages. The opportunity is to find a way to connect with them at a level that grants us admission to their inner circle. As we know instinctively, that’s a very good place to be.

Lessons From the Campaign Trail

Businessweek’s Catherine Holahan writes this week about the big lead Barack Obama has built against John McCain in online visibility. While I’m not going to declare a preference for either candidate, I do think it’s worth noting the lessons marketers can learn from the Obama campaign’s success.

Political campaigns have long been about the 30-second television spot. Candidates staked their reputations and their success on a series of carefully crafted (and very expensive) image ads that ran in key markets. The high cost of this approach forced campaigns to bet everything on strategic media buys.

The Obama campaign has challenged this conventional wisdom. While the 30-second spot still has its place, it isn’t with the emerging population of young voters. When young people do watch TV, it’s rarely in prime time and they are usually fast-forwarding through the commercials. Perhaps one reason this group has become so politically disenfranchised in recent elections is that no one is reaching them on their terms.

The Obama campaign, however, has figured it out. Its innovation has been in understanding that mainstream media is no longer the bottleneck of communication. When candidates — or marketers — use all the media channels available, they can create significant impact without relying on traditional media or advertising at all.

The numbers cited by BusinessWeek are impressive. The Obama campaign decided at the outset to leverage every possible channel to reach its audience and to take every possible opportunity to drive home its message. The candidate is essentially broadcasting every waking minute. When Obama gives a speech, a staffer videotapes it and uploads it to YouTube. When the candidate is in the car, aides are delivering messages on Twitter. Between campaign stops, the candidate conducts chats on MySpace or distributes position papers on his own social network.

The cost of these activities is next to nothing and the young audience they reach has been almost completely ignored by other campaigns. Perhaps more importantly, the Obama strategy has centered on frequent repetition, which is a classic marketing best practice. Instead of waiting for the media gods to bestow attention upon the candidate, the candidate chooses to become the media.

What can marketers learn from this? For one thing, you are no longer a prisoner of the media. You can become the media. Secondly, if you choose a strategic combination of channels and then deliver messages consistently and frequently, you can get better results than by renting a half minute on TV once a week.

Finally, the Obama campaign has demonstrated the beauty of small markets. When you aggregate the candidate’s 43,000 Twitter followers, 60,000 YouTube subscribers, 1.1 million Facebook friends, 21,000 MySpace friends and 850,000 members of, you’re quickly over 2 million followers, each of whom has volunteered for that status. If you can convince each one of those people to spread the word to three others, well, you do the math.

Four years ago, the Howard Dean campaign tried to leverage the Internet to run a grass-roots campaign and fell short. There were several reasons for that, but lack of tools was one of them. Today, the problem is how to choose from the bounty of tools that are available. The Obama campaign demonstrates that word-of-mouth campaigns can open a whole new world of possibilities.

Social Media Tools Don’t Matter

Here’s a question I hear from marketers all the time: “We want to launch a corporate blog, but we don’t know how to go about it. Where should we start?”

My answer is that you should start a couple of steps back from where you are. Social media tools – whether they’re blogs, online communities, instructional videos or something else – don’t solve anything unless they address a specific business need. Don’t use social media for its own sake. Use it to accomplish an objective.

Unfortunately, the temptation is difficult to resist. Lots of businesses are experimenting with social media tools these days. It’s natural to think that they know something the rest of us don’t, but the reality is that most people are still kicking tires right now. There are some very successful companies like Apple Computer that are doing nothing with social media because they don’t have to. If the tools aren’t right for your culture or your business, don’t use them.

Whatever you do, don’t start the decision process with technology. The choice of a social media tool is no more relevant to the success of a campaign than is the choice of paint to the structural integrity of a house. Many tools are flexible enough to be used for multiple purposes and some strategic goals require you to leverage many tools in concert.

Stop and consider the problem or opportunity you’re trying to address. Here are a few possible business objectives, with the best tool options listed in parentheses.

  • Build customer community (blog, video, social network, private community, virtual world)
  • Counter negative publicity (blog, podcast, video, customer reviews)
  • Crisis management (blog, video, social network, virtual world)
  • Customer conversation (blog, social network, private community, virtual world)
  • Generate website traffic (blog, video, customer reviews)

Many more examples will be explored in my forthcoming book, Secrets of Social Media Marketing. It will be available this fall and you can pre-order it on Amazon right now. I also recommend reading Groundswell, the new book by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research. It has some excellent advice on how to take a disciplined approach to social media selection.

Note that blogs appear next to every bullet point listed above. That doesn’t mean blogs are a panacea. They are the easiest form of social media to implement, but far greater leverage may derive from more complex tools like customer communities. You should choose media based upon your budget, staff resources and commitment. It’s often best to start small and grow your social media footprint as you become more fluent with the tools. Blogs are a good starting point, but you may need stronger medicine after a while.

Keep in mind the importance of balancing between ease of use, simplicity of deployment and functionality. Many social media tools can be used for multiple purposes. You may be better off starting with a tool that you understand well rather than deploying a somewhat richer solution that carries a steep learning curve.

If you keep the tools secondary and work outward from the business goal, you’re far more likely to reap the rewards of your efforts.

Social Bookmarking Sites: An Essential Online Marketing Tool

According to my e-mail service provider’s reports, a lot of subscribers to my newsletter skip my opening essay each week and going directly to a little item called “Just for Fun” that I include in every newsletter. Just For Fun is a link to a funny, offbeat or just plain bizarre item that I find on the Web.

It may look like I spend hours each week looking for source material, but my real secret is StumbleUpon, which is a popular example of the new breed of social bookmarking sites.

Social bookmarking is one of the hottest group activities on the Internet, and it’s capable of driving enormous amounts of traffic if your site is lucky enough to be selected. Over the next couple of issues of my newsletter, I’ll look at some of the more popular bookmarking sites and explain how they work. Although I caution against relying on raw traffic stats as an indicator of success, I recommend you make social bookmarking a staple of your promotion efforts.

Bookmarks have been around since the early stays of the Internet, having been included in the earliest browsers. Bookmarks are an easy way to keep track of information you’ve seen and want to return to, but as a standalone tool, they’re not very interesting.

Where they do get interesting is when you share your bookmarks with others. As I pointed out in an earlier newsletter, social bookmarking is kind of a human-powered search engine. As more and more people bookmark and comment upon the same content, a richer description of the content emerges. Also, web pages with a lot of votes can rise up the popularity stack, making them more prominent and more useful to interested people. Social bookmarking sites aren’t nearly as exhaustive as search engine indexes, but every single entry has been vetted by a person.

StumbleUpon is one of my favorite examples of this genre. Once you become a member, you can install the StumbleUpon toolbar and immediately begin flagging interesting sites. Your selections and descriptions go into a common area where others can see what you chose and why. As others vote for the same sites, those selections rise in the StumbleUpon hierarchy.

As a user, you can subscribe to stumbled sites by category. When you click the “Stumble!” button in the toolbar, you automatically go to a random site that has been selected by other members. Sites that have been favorably reviewed more often are more likely to turn up in your random “stumblings.”

It’s perfectly OK to stumble upon your own site. This isn’t gaming the system, because your selection only becomes important if other people vote for you as well. If nobody else finds your page interesting, nothing much will happen, but if you attract enough interest you can draw an astonishing amount of traffic.

I found this out myself recently when I stumbled upon an entry in a blog I maintain called Newspaper Death Watch. Apparently some other people liked my selection. That blog, which normally gets about 100 visitors a day, received more than 1,200 visitors in one day, nearly all of them from StumbleUpon.Not surprisingly, most of those visitors came and left in just a few seconds. But a few of them did stick around and the site’s average traffic levels increased about 20% after that one incident.

This was hardly a make-or-break event, but it’s one indication of how social bookmarking can quickly generate a lot of visibility for your website.

The Future Will Be Twittered

The annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference in Austin, Texas is a showcase for geeks and their new toys, but the event held earlier this month broke new ground in another way. Anyone who runs corporate events or works in a time-dependent business should be fascinated — and maybe a little scared — by what transpired there.

The highlight was the keynote interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg by BusinessWeek’s Sarah Lacy. Evidently, a lot of people in the audience didn’t much care for Lacy’s rather interruptive questioning style or her cozy familiarity with the subject. They were also put off by her failure to involve the audience more directly in the line of questioning.

So they started Twittering about it. And as the interview went on, the comments passed between attendees took on a life of their own. By the 50-minute mark, the emboldened audience was actively heckling the moderator. Lacy was a bit flustered, but she finished the interview. When she walked out of the auditorium a short time later, bloggers armed with a video cameras were there to record her reaction to the audience’s behavior. Here’s a video of the entire interview, annotated with audience tweets.

Sarah Lacy is a professional, and she will be just fine. She posted a response on her BusinessWeek blog and noted that the incident was actually good for pre-sales of her forthcoming book. What struck me about this incident is how it portends change in the speed of customer feedback.

The Feedback Conundrum
Veteran conference organizers know that getting audience feedback is like pulling teeth. They’re lucky if 20% of the attendees at an event even fill out evaluation forms, and it can take months to tabulate those results. Events are intimidating to audience members; they don’t control the microphone and they can’t communicate with each other very well. Services like Twitter change that equation.

The reason events at SXSW unfolded as they did is because audience members were able to communicate with each other. That’s the scary part. No speaker likes to think of a scenario in which his or her performance is judged in real-time, although I can certainly think of times when I wished I could pull a speaker off the stage.

The potential upside of this trend, however, is enormous. Imagine if you could stage an event — whether a conference, media campaign, product demo or something else — and get real-time feedback from the people watching. Or what if you could tie promotions to timely responses: “Text this number now in order to receive a 20% discount.” The technology to enable this interaction is here right now. I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the possibilities. What potential do you see?

Blogging, which started life as a rapid form of candid customer feedback, has now evolved into a near-real-time medium. When audience members feel they can comment directly to each other about a shared experience, their honesty is disarming. Marketers can learn to leverage tools like Twittervision, and Tweet Scan to tap into these conversations or to initiate new conversations themselves. All it takes is familiarity and imagination. An excellent list of third-party Twitter applications is available at the Twitter Fan Wiki.

The Social Network Wars Are Over; Now it Gets Interesting.

If you’re sitting on the sidelines waiting for the market to pick winners in the social network race, you can stand up now. Hitwise data for 2007 shows that MySpace and Facebook together accounted for 88% of all visits to social network sites. The next closest competitor, Bebo , got a little more than 1% of the traffic.

There simply is no more competition in the general-purpose social network market. Other social media winners include LinkedIn (which wasn’t included in the Hitwise data), YouTube and Flickr. If you’re a big brand pursuing a broad strategy, you can safely place your bets on these services. For the next year or two, the also-rans will be busy finding buyers and merger partners.

Now is when it really gets interesting, because now the action shifts to vertical market sites. For many marketers, this is where the more interesting opportunity lies. For example, in the area of health, there’s, Wellsphere, Patientslikeme, and iMedix. Seniors can choose from Elder Wisdom Circle,, Eons, TeeBeeDee and Multiply. Mothers can sign up for Cafemom,, MomJunction and MothersClick, among others.

And the action isn’t limited to consumer markets. Sermo is a social network for physicians, which now boasts more than 50,000 members. Doctors exchange information about serious medical issues and review cases in real time. Pairup connects business travelers for peer advice, networking and assistance. There’s a list of more than 350 social networks here.

Don’t let small membership numbers fool you. Many of these sites may be attractive marketing venues. Scan the groups, discussion topics and participants and look for content profiles that match your market. Prices are generally lower than those of the big social networks and the audience is far more targeted.

Marketing to vertical communities is very different from mass marketing, of course. If you’re interested in building a campaign on Facebook, have a look at what Southwest Airlines and Victoria’s Secret are doing, or the group started by Starbucks fans that has over 60,000 members. There’s nothing particularly high tech about their presence. They mainly provide a place where customers can keep in touch with the brand and have access to special offers and downloads.

When marketing to vertical communities, you need to dig deeply into the expertise in your organization. Members of a health-oriented network, for example, want to speak to people who have lots of expertise in nutrition and treatment. Discounts and promotions won’t work nearly as well in narrow markets as they do in broad ones. If you have articulate, interesting domain experts in your organization, now’s the time to pull them out of the shadows and engage them with knowledgeable communities. Live chats, webcasts and Q&A forums are particularly effective.

Much of the media attention in the last year has focused on the battle for social network supremacy. With that competition now over, the market will subdivide itself in interesting ways. This process will continue for years, presenting an ever-shifting landscape of new marketing opportunities.