Despite the increasing amount of time people are spending on SNSs (McGiboney, 2009), these sites have yet to be harnessed as a successful marketing tool for reaching and engaging consumers (Nielsen, 2009).Can social networking sites be used as an effec- tive marketing tool to engage consumers to participate in marketing on SNSs?Communication and relationship maintenance are cited by Dwyer et al. (2007) as the main motivating factors for participation in SNSs. The internet was at times seen as a medium that diminished social capital (Kraut et al., 1998). However, Wellman et al. (2001) outline that more recent studies have shown it maintains and supplements social capital when used in a social context. The trend towards social media shows no sign of slowing, as studies report those born after 1982 consume fewer newspapers, magazines and scheduled television in favour of online activities (Gillin, 2007). Given these factors, Kozinets (1999) argues that building relationships and engaging in conversations with consumers in online communities has become increasingly important. This relationship building he calls ‘virtual relationship marketing’. Central to this discipline, which Gillin (2007) refers to as ‘conversation marketing’, is dialogue. ‘Conversation marketing’ will require marketers to approach consumers in a new way and to not only take from consumers but give back to consumers. The empowered consumer will expect to receive something of value in return for their participation. Gillin (2007: xiii) concludes: ‘it means understanding who your customers are, who in uences them and how to engage with those in uencers’. As a result, it is not the message and pushing it onto consumers that is important but creating a real and meaningful dialogue with them (Meadows-Klue, 2007). Gladwell (2000) categorised in uencer groups into mavens, connectors and sales- people. Mavens are people who gather product and service information and are asked by others to provide information in relation to these products and services. Connectors are those who essentially ‘connect’ to others and connect those they know to one another. This category of in uencer is one who has discussed products and services with at least two other individuals. Salespeople are those who in uence others to buy or refrain from buying products and services. Eccleston and Griseri (2008) explain that the majority of SNS members behave as connectors do. As a result, control is increasingly in the hands of the consumer. Urban (2005) reports that, traditionally, if consumers were dissatis ed, they may tell a few of those close to them, and, at worst, a company would lose only a small number of customers. Consumers have trust in one another and SNSs hold potential as a word-of-mouth communications medium regarding products and services. The question facing marketers and companies is how to create this trust and dialogue with members and encourage them to become those connectors proposed by Eccleston and Griseri (2008) and pass on company messages and recommendations to one another. has enabled consumers to become more powerful and dictate exactly what they want and expect from a company. This prosumer expects their demands to be met. With the right approach, SNSs can provide a means for companies to engage consumers and encourage them to pass on company messages throughout the extended network of contacts they have established on-site. Qualitative research in the form of face-to-face focus groups to gain an in-depth under- standing of consumer attitudes and the reasoning behind these attitudes was conducted. Due to the profound and complex nature of attitudes, it was felt that face-to-face focus groups were more appropriate, as indicated by previous studies conducted in the area of SNSs (Coyle and Vaughan, 2008; PwC, 2008a; PwC, 2008b). SNSs are used for numerous reasons, among which are to maintain and develop ties with others created in the physical world. Verbal cues such as tone of voice, body language and gestures add to the quality of the focus groups and provide insights as to how members relate to certain types of marketing used and also to one another. Face-to-face focus groups have been found to facilitate easier communication among respondents, which for the purposes of studying consumer attitudes will be useful for gaining insights into how consumer attitudes in uence one another and to keep the pace of the groups at that in which respondents can re ect on how they feel and elaborate upon these feelings through discussion with others in the group (Reid and Reid, 2005). Respondents were chosen using convenience sampling due to ease of sample selection and data collection. The main limitation of using convenience sampling is its lack of representativeness. The researcher selected participants by asking them if they were SNS users and if they belonged to the necessary age categories. The focus group ndings illustrate clearly that SNSs represent a means of communica- tion for their users, primarily to keep in contact with both strong and weak ties, but also to reactivate latent ties and generate new ties. Therefore, more research in the area of SNSs and marketing and devel- oping the correct approach in utilising them as a marketing tool on behalf of companies is essential. Engagement and dialogue are essential, yet rarely utilised. Relevancy and timing are key factors in gaining the attention of SNS users. It must be remembered they are on these sites to communicate with one another, so if marketers are to grab their attention the advertisements must appeal to users’ needs and wants at that time. Ceding control to consumers may provide a more effective means of reaching and engaging consumers. Using groups and company pages is at the discretion of members and company pages allow them to engage in conversation with a company itself, feel like they are involved with that company and make themselves heard in relation to that company. It creates an all-important dialogue between consumer and company through which trust can be created, which is a crucial element that emerged from the focus group proceedings. Marketing on SNSs to date has adopted the traditional approach of attempting to engage a presumably passive consumer, whereas company pages and groups appeal to the empowered and active consumer and allow them to take part in the medium itselThe implication here for companies appears to be a more ‘friendship’-based approach to consumers on these sites. This relationship will be one where company and consumers are on an equal footing and can engage in a proactive relationship with both the company and the consumer bene ting equally. Given that focus groups comprise a small number of members of the population of interest, whose member interactions and opinions may have an impact on responses, they do not afford statistical analysis (Stewart et al., 2006). This qualitative approach was adopted in order to build a more holistic picture of how SNSs can be integrated effec- tively into marketing strategy.
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