Companies hoping to use social networking to sell products should set aside part of their marketing budget to “court” influential members of forums and groups, a leading research company has urged.

Known as “super-advocates” on websites such as MySpace and Facebook, they will be able to make or break brands in a short period of time and should be treated with caution, according to a report on social networking by Experian and Hitwise.

Robin Goad and Tony Mooney, the authors, told the FT that Facebook was the fourth most popular website in the UK last month, illustrating the vast potential of social networking.

“It is a sign of how social networks are overtaking e-mail as a form of communication that Christmas day was the busiest day of the year for these sites – people are sending each other messages and keeping track of each other’s activities on their network sites,” Mr Goad, UK research director of Hitwise, said.

But marketing departments have to be cautious. “Unfortunately, the reason that people are attracted to social networks in the first place is that reliance on user-generated content is seen as relatively free of traditional corporate content and advertising,” the report says. “If users perceive that a social network is becoming ‘polluted’ they will leave and the evidence suggests that this can happen extremely quickly. Therefore, the onus is on the social networks themselves and the websites wishing to gain traffic from them to design marketing campaigns that fit in with this philosophy.”

Social networks will be the key to successful “viral” marketing campaigns, Mr Mooney said. “Look at the 14,000 people who signed a Facebook petition to bring back the Wispa bar for Cadbury’s for instance,” he said. “Or the Primark Appreciation Society, which has 100,000 members.” The society has received gentle guidance from the retailer’s marketing team. The report says: “By carefully courting super-advocates, marketers will be able to use them to disseminate information successfully in a fraction of the time it would take via their own social media presence.

“One word of caution: super-advocates will be high maintenance because they know that they hold all of the cards and, if badly handled, brands will have an influential detractor on their hands …Marketers must be prepared to do everything in their power to keep these key influencers onside and set aside marketing budgets to court them.”

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