But the numbers only begin to show how social networks, led by Bay Area companies Facebook and Twitter, are reshaping the way people communicate. And because of that trend, businesses began to adopt social media in 2009 and figure to get more involved in the new year.
“The corporate response was no longer, ‘What is this thing?’ ” said analyst Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research. “They were asking questions about how should we go about this, which tools should we use and what sort of (return on investment) should we expect. They were asking business questions.”
Social media has gone from being an easy way for people to keep up with friends and relatives to becoming as integral for businesses as e-mail in managing customer relationships and projects.
“It is my lifeline for business,” said Lisa Choi, a partner program manager for Responsys Inc., a San Bruno e-mail marketing company.
Choi said her Facebook profile was “very personal” a year ago, but then she started using it to set up meetings and deepen relationships with clients.
“I started adding more people from my professional world to my personal world,” Choi said. “I have over 900 friends on Facebook, and half of them are work-related.”
Even though surveys showed a large number of firms were restricting or blocking employees from using social networks, businesses still tend to follow the consumers, who were flocking to social media in droves in 2009.
Facebook registered its 350-millionth member in December, a phenomenal growth spurt considering the Palo Alto firm had 140 million members one year earlier.
Facebook shot past previous social-media king MySpace, which doesn’t release its total membership numbers, but reports that it has more than 100 million unique monthly users.
And Bernoff said the year in social media is better summed up with one word: Twitter.
Thriving on brevity
That’s appropriate because the 3-year-old San Francisco microblogging service has thrived on the brevity of its 140-character messages and took off in 2009 with celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Oprah Winfrey tweeting.
The privately held Twitter does not reveal how many members it has, although some analysts estimate that there are more than 70 million. The online analytics firm Compete Inc. has said Twitter’s number of unique U.S. visitors increased from 4.5 million in November 2008 to 22.4 million last month. And according to Web measurement firm comScore Inc., Twitter grew to 58.3 million unique visitors worldwide in October, compared with 4.4 million 12 months earlier.
Bernoff, co-author of “Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies,” said Twitter’s growing influence was felt worldwide, even to the point that the larger Facebook changed the way it looks and operates to more closely emulate Twitter.
Both are generating income from deals with Google and Microsoft’s Bing to integrate their posts into real-time searches. The conversations, data and other information on those posts are potentially valuable to marketers.
Another measure of that influence came in June, when Twitter became a major conduit for the world’s news and communication from Iran as residents protested the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The U.S. State Department even asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance to make sure Iranians were able to tweet.
Other major events like the death of Michael Jackson turned Twitter into an instant news wire.
Business began paying attention to what their customers were saying on Twitter and Facebook, quickly learning how negative publicity can spread like wildfire over social networks.
Domino’s Pizza found that out in April when two employees posted a YouTube video showing them handling food in an unsanitary manner. The clip went viral through social media. And in July, United Airlines had to deal with a firestorm when a disgruntled musician posted a video protesting the carrier’s handling of his broken guitar.
This holiday season, big retailers such as Sears-Kmart, Target, Toys R Us and J.C. Penney used tweets and Facebook fan pages as a direct marketing tool to promote Black Friday specials. One survey showed that 28 percent of early holiday shoppers were influenced to buy a gift through social media.
Carl’s Jr. chain is using its Facebook fan page to present an interactive “lunch date” on Jan. 13 with Kim Kardashian, who began promoting a new line of salads this week.
It’s not just major firms. A Web site that serves small businesses on the Peninsula runs Twitter Hunt promotions. One hunt for Gaia Essentials, a small Moss Beach soap and skin products shop, asked Twitter followers to answer a trivia question from information found on the shop’s Web site, and its traffic tripled.
“It’s a cost-effective ad solution, helping them expand their customer base,” said Jason Sutherland, owner and founder of PeninsulaShops.com.
Choi uses a plug-in from Xobni Inc. of San Francisco that integrates Microsoft Outlook with her social networks, so photos, status updates and other information are visible within the e-mail program.
Look for more of that kind of integration next year. Microsoft has demonstrated its next version of Outlook that ties into professional social network LinkedIn Corp. of Mountain View, while NutshellMail, a startup partially funded by Facebook, released an application this month that manages social-network interactions through e-mail.
Xobni founder Matt Brezina believes social media and business now have a firm partnership.
“The individual players might change,” Brezina said. “There might be a new Facebook that comes out that beats this Facebook. But the type of data they’re showing and its usefulness to people inside business, I don’t think that’s going anywhere.”