April 10, 2007, 12:00 AM

Social networking sites influence one third of online buyers, study says

One in four U.S. adult web users visits social networking sites regularly, an iProspect/Jupiter Research study finds. Frequent visitors constitute communities that offer targeted marketing opportunities.

One in four adult Internet users in the U.S. visits social networking sites regularly, and one in three says their purchase decisions are influenced by sites that contain social content, according to a new study sponsored by search marketing firm iProspect and conducted by JupiterResearch.

While cautioning that participation in social networking sites must make sense for an individual marketer’s business strategy, for the right marketers, the decision to participate-or not-could lead to potential revenue gain, or lost opportunity, says Robert Murray, president, iProspect. “If you’re an online marketer and you haven’t assessed the value of social networking sites, its time you got religion,” he says.

The iProspect Social Networking User Behavior study defined “social networking site” as one that allows Internet users the ability to add user-generated content such as reviews, comments, feedback, ratings or their own dedicated pages. That definition allowed researchers to include Amazon.com in the data rounded up on the most popular social networking sites visited by users, along with MySpace and YouTube. Study responses gathered in January from 2,000 randomly-selected Internet users indicate Amazon is the most influential social network site in terms of purchase decisions. The study notes that of the sites in the study, Amazon is the only one on which users can buy products directly.

In a key finding, the study determined that the social networking sites examined are visited at least monthly by about 25% of the U.S. online population. The study also determined that some sites attract specific “communities”-frequent visitors who share a predominant set of traits-that offer marketers a specific targeting opportunity not yet available on major search engines.

However, Murray notes, social networking sites are far from replacing major search engines in terms of the quantity and frequency of visits received. “Even MySpace, the most popular of the social networking sites included in the study, is dwarfed by the likes of Google or Yahoo. Smart marketers will explore social networks yet continue to invest in being found in the major search engines,” Murray says.

In other findings, the study determined that visitors primarily arrive at social networking sites through direct navigation or bookmaking, Google search, Yahoo search and links in e-mails. The 18-24 year old age group is more prolific at visiting social networking sites and the major search engines weekly, as well as in posting content on social networking sites.

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