gets the message out
Study: May be a site's best form of advertising
By Jeremy Schlosberg
No one knows exactly when it began, but over the last few years just about every site offering news or information has also taken to offering users the chance, with a click, to send on an article to others.
For users this send-to-a-friend function is a convenient way to stay in touch with friends without picking up the phone or dashing off an email.
For web sites it might be a more valuable function than even their owners realize.
It may be their best form of advertising.
So suggests Sandeep Krishnamurthy, an expert in viral marketing and a professor at the University of Washington. Krishnamurthy recently published a paper analyzing the "send-this-story-to-a-friend" phenomenon in some detail.
"The ‘send-to-a-friend’ option is a simple yet effective form of advertising," says Krishnamurthy.
He thinks the function would become more widely used if sites would bother to upgrade the technology.
"I wish people would make it more salient and innovate along these lines," he says. "Current technologies for doing this are not that great. I believe that if people spend more money they can get a bigger bang for their buck."
Krishnamurthy’s report examines data from ESPN.com over an 11-day period in March detailing which stories users were sending on to friends and acquaintances.
What makes the "send-to-a-friend" feature potentially so effective is its high level of relevance and involvement, he says.
"We all suffer from information overload. So, the chance that we miss a story we care about is high. Getting a story from a friend is a great way to locate these gems.
"My friend knows me, ESPN does not," he adds.
In his research, though, Krishnamurthy was taken aback by how few people actually use the send-to-a-friend option.
ESPN.com attracts some six million or so visitors a day, yet over the 11-day period Krishnamurthy examined the largest number of users who sent such messages in any 24 hour period was 5,500 users--less
than 1 percent of the total visits to the site.
"I was really surprised by the small numbers," says Krishnamurthy.
These numbers might theoretically rise if sites improve the feature over time. But even at this low level, he sees value.
"It is not expensive to do and it leads to incremental traffic," he says—no mean feat these days. Plus, he notes that this data represents only the first part of the cycle, in that once an article is emailed to someone it may well be emailed again.
"So many more people could have read the article than the total number of ‘sends,’" he notes. "Compare the cost of doing this with the cost of running banners or setting up email services."
And yet the true value of this feature may transcend quantitative analysis, he says. "Its larger importance may be to build strong relationships with customers."
And so a feature such as "send-to-a-friend" can do a lot towards helping content sites with a crucial task: establishing a truly interactive relationship with visitors. The people who use the "send-to-a-friend" feature are people already displaying the level of involvement that sites should be seeking with everyone.
"There is a large literature on ‘market mavens’--these are experts who love to disseminate information," he says. Because people who use the send-to-a-friend feature are likely to fit into this category, they deserve attention.
"News sites must identify top story senders and pamper them with T-shirts or mugs or what-have-you," suggests Krishnamurthy.
For content sites to succeed on the web, they must work at becoming dynamic communities, he says, not just places to get the same basic information people easily get in a newspaper or magazine.
While a seemingly small feature, the "send-to-a-friend" button or link offers a glimpse of how this still-evolving medium might yet evolve, he says.
"This is progress," he affirms. "I see this as an interim step in the general direction of consumers being incorporated more closely in web site activities."
Krishnamurthy’s paper was published online at First Monday, a peer-reviewed internet journal that launched in May 1996. Among First Monday’s brain trust is tech guru Esther Dyson, who is the publication’s consulting editor.
June 13, 2001 © 2001 Media Life
-Jeremy Schlosberg is the senior editor for new media.