The best-known such site is probably US-based operation MySpace, bought by News International last July for $580m (£332m). Such is its scale that it is being promoted by two PR agencies – Freud Communications and Edelman (PRWeek, 21 April) – in the UK.
Sometimes seen as a youth resource, most MySpace members are aged between 18 and 40 – younger teens tend to go elsewhere (see box below). But despite its corporate ownership and a fairly mainstream user base, the site still feels relatively spontaneous and unregulated – as the mock profiles of owner Rupert Murdoch (some of which have him wearing a Hitler moustache) show.
Information is spread in a viral manner, making it attractive to brands determined to grow by word of mouth.
Making the connection
MySpace SV-P of marketing, Europe Jamie Kantrowitz says the site 'allows a real connection between a brand and its audience, an interactive engagement that outlasts an advertising campaign'.
Anyone can create a MySpace profile for free. They can add photos and blogs, and send emails and 'Friend Requests' to other users.
Once users accept someone into their network, they post comments on each other's profiles, revealing to browsers the extent of their involvement with certain brands.
MySpace is perhaps best known for use by musicians. British indie-music sensation The Arctic Monkeys' success is often attributed to the fact that they built a large fanbase via the site.
Custard PR director Zuzanna Pasierbinska describes promoting bands via MySpace as 'actually quite simple'. She says: 'If you have a band that sounds like Pearl Jam, for example, you can send Friend Requests to people who have said they like Pearl Jam. Any brand could do something similar, but it would have to be cool enough.'
Consumer brands using MySpace include Xbox, Sprite, US burger chain Wendy's, Honda and Toyota. And MySpace profiles are springing up for many issues-led activities, including the STOP cruelty against animals drive and US Democrat candidate Phil Angelides' campaign to be governor of California.
Sprite's profile, for example, features this excited comment: 'Yo, dis is tight, explore like a dynamite, its outta sight, make ppl start a fight, so do wats right, drink Sprite!'
Big brands' profiles are designed to fit in with the 'raw' look and feel of MySpace, but they have usually been paid for as part of ad campaigns. This means MySpace will promote the profile for them, through special communities or areas of the site. MySpace conditions state that no business can be done on the site without written consent, so brands setting up a profile for free should ensure content does not breach the rules.
Whether or not a brand's MySpace presence is paid for, campaigns must be conducted subtly and users should not feel aggressively marketed to. Sending out friend invitations or mass emails is counter-productive, says Lewis PR account director Drew Benvie: 'Spam will damage your brand, because people might start talking about the fact that you are doing it.'
Chatroom participation can also be tricky. Firms posting anonymously take a huge risk, and blatant postings on their behalf would be frowned upon.
So while MySpace profiles can be publicised through traditional media, Friend Requests and emails, the most subtle mechanic is to let users find the profile themselves, by spotting it in the friends network of other sites. It could mean putting yourself on the network of a real-life friend, or on that of a similar band, film or product.
UK-only brands seem reluctant to create official MySpace pages.
Shine Online account director Lawrence Collis argues that because MySpace is consumer-created, it can be a 'dangerous area in which to get involved.'
Some even believe that MySpace is already passé. The Fish Can Sing partner Dan Holliday says: 'Brands have to stop assuming that the internet, youth and cool are automatic bedfellows. The net is too big for that now – being on MySpace is as cool as your grandma.'
He adds: 'It won't do brands any good unless they have an idea that is a fit and will benefit directly from being there. What you have at present are brands with a lumbering, awkward presence.'
Getting the tone right is hard. Think Espionage founding director Adam Dewhurst says: 'MySpace allows an idea to organically thrive without corporate promotion, and this is what MySpace users love.' At the other extreme, 'yoof' speak will be seen as cheesy.
Benvie believes the best way to use MySpace is to 'give customers something to go away with', such as branded backgrounds, which they can use for their own MySpace profiles and which will be seen by browsers of their page.
Entertaining content can also encourage users to tell their friends about a firm's MySpace profile, creating the very 'buzz' that brands are there for in the first place.