The good thing? Your next generation of consumers and employees gather in a virtual town square on a daily basis, and it's comparatively cheap to reach a whole lot of them at once.
The bad news? You have to get on their level to do so. Fortunately, it's not as hard as you think, if you follow some simple rules.
Rule #1 - Don't ignore this new virtual social space.
I probably don't have to tell you this, but I will anyway -- social networks are a huge development, if not a total revolution, in online marketing. "Websites like MySpace and Facebook are behemoths," says Jennifer Lange of Web design firm SpaceGravy. "You need to be where your customers will most likely be and chances are, they're socially networking. Neglecting to have a social networking presence is akin to neglecting your customers."
Rule #2 - Advertising isn't everything.
Lange says that a sound social network advertisement strategy is built more around the free profile and effective management of the actual social networking process, rather than an investment of marketing dollars for banner ads/promotions etc. The good news is that it costs less to establish a brand online; the bad news is that your control over your ad messaging is weakened, and the competition is flatter in general (which means that a bigger ad budget doesn't necessarily translate into more revenue).
Rule #3 - Work your profile.
As any teen or twentysomething can tell you, having a profile is one thing, but "working" that profile by adding friends, posting comments, writing blog entries and sending bulletins is something altogether different. In fact, growing brand awareness via an online profile-building strategy is a new specialty in the corporate communications game, and you might have an expert on staff who, with a little brand discipline, can run the show for you.
Rule #4 - MySpace isn't the only game in town.
MySpace and Facebook may be the biggest, but by no means are they the only game in the virtual town. Lange says to have a presence at a variety of social networks to broaden your reach.
Here's a list of social networks, many of them international (and many of them non-teen-oriented) that can be used for some cheap, easy qualitative customer and market research.
Rule #5 - Maintain the integrity of social networking.
Nothing will alienate young web surfers like blatant commercial speech, and once you've ruined your name, you can't get it back (and bad news like this travels faster than ever these days).
Today's youth crave and respond to authenticity, and Lange says it's vitally important to maintain a balance between marketing your company and preserving the social networking experience to which millions of users have become accustomed.
Keep it simple, informal and don't get in the way of the user experience, and you'll be fine.
"Also, aside from profanity or verbal abuse, allow friends to post comments about your company, even if they're negative. You can learn a lot about your customers -- and your business -- that way," says Lange.
All this brings to mind an earlier piece I wrote on blog outreach, available here.
Two more quick observations:
One, you know you're probably dealing with a Gen Y-founded company when the firm name is "SpaceGravy." Now THAT'S 21st-century authenticity.
Two, if you haven't ever checked out MySpace or Facebook, go take a trip around one of these new, virtual community spaces -- the future of your business depends on either employing or marketing to this group, so as scary as it might be to consider, you might as well start getting into their heads now. The longer you wait, the shorter the attention span you'll have to make an impact with when your online debut finally does arrive.