I was planning to blog as I attended this conference (last week). However, the presenters and other attendees were just so darn interesting I never found the time (shame on them)!
Throughout the conference I had the opportunity to speak with all of the movers and shakers in the world of social computing. From the standpoint of a consumer (social network member) all I'd really see is that I can use my Facebook account to keep in touch with all of my college buddies. From a business perspective this is a radically new market in its nascent stages. There has never been another opportunity in the history of media which collected so many consumers together - one channel - one conduit through which you can reach an entire audience segment (say 18-25) and more.
However, there has also never been an audience more immune to marketing. Every consumer in that demographic has been bombarded by advertising in nearly every conceivable form since birth. So, they have become very adept at tuning out the the messages of marketing (they listen but do not hear). In online advertising there are two major measures of reach - impressions (you saw a banner) and click throughs (you clicked on a banner). In general social networks can deliver INCREDIBLE numbers of impressions (lots of people see), but dismal click throughs (nobody cares) - often small fractions of %1.
OK - so now we have a HUGE audience that isn't listening. Conventional marketing on social networking is like being the school principal at a school assembly. However, just like at a school assembly - while not listening to the principle - the kids are talking to each other. Mostly about random personal things (who's dating who/the local party etc). This is where the viral spread comes in - news can spread FAST - not through shouting (one to many broadcast) - but a series of whispers (1:1 multicast). So the big question is: how do I get the kids to whisper about my product?
Act as an aggregator - not a megaphone
The best scenario for a marketer is the viral plug. I tell my friend I LOVE product X. That means I am lending my personal credibility to that product and that brand. There is no way for any employees of the company producing X (who have basically no credibility with me) to have a similar impact. So, rather than telling your audience your product is great - you need to do everything you can to enable your champions - real users who already like your product to spread the word. You can do this by creating a place for community members to talk, incentives for current users to share with the community, or simple recognition for owning your product (think apple's white ear buds online). This will encourage the topic to come up in the user's conversations.
Do well by doing good
Your online outreach needs to be more than just talk. Take some action to make your users live's better. Contribute articles (think George Forman's Grilling recipes), provide online support, access to your development teams, or just entertainment. There needs to be some reason for users to come to your site - some material which they can't find anywhere else (and that they actually want). Users will want to share valuable information and resources with their friends - perfectly viral.
Its for serious
Realize that this a trend - not a fad. The return on investment for most of the companies embracing this phenomenon are AMAZING. Also, we're seeing the business infrastructure being built behind these companies. It's not just developers and VCs spinning up one offs anymore. There are social media application networks (rock you) who use cross selling to bootstrap new applications, mediators to translate Facebook developer talk into what advertisers understand (people talking => CPI), and even several analytics firms (who are my users and what are they doing?).
Just remember: use your inside voice. Whisper. Don't shout.