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msnbc.com
updated 7/26/2010 4:55:31 PM ET 2010-07-26T20:55:31

Just as more of us are turning to sites like Facebook and Twitter for the news of the day, we're also looking to social networks for guidance on what to buy. That's manna to marketing folks, who no doubt will be encouraged by findings released today by Gartner research firm.

"The majority of consumers rely to some extent on social networks to guide them in their purchase decisions," said the research firm, which surveyed nearly 4,000 consumers in the last quarter of 2009.

The growing importance of such sites as information influencers was noted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism earlier this year.

"People use their social networks and social networking technology to filter, assess and react to news," the nonprofit group said in a report, "Understanding the Participatory News Consumer."

And with more of us spending time away from television and newspapers and on the computer or cell phone with sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, Friendster, Tumblr and Flickr, it's our friends and contacts who are getting our attention, and not necessarily splashy advertisers or big-time media companies.  

Social networks have become "a critical, but underutilized, aspect of the marketing process," according to the Gartner report.

Gartner research director Nick Ingelbrecht said that 20 percent "of the consumer population is composed of 'salesmen,' 'connectors' and 'mavens,'" people who are persuading others about what to buy, bringing contacts together or who are considered know-it-alls about products.

"These are three roles that are key influencers in the purchasing activities of 74 percent of the population," Ingelbrecht said.

There are some other social network "roles" that Gartner described:

  • "Seekers," who "connect with other people in order to find out the information, skills and obligations they need to conduct their daily lives. When Seekers go shopping, they tend to seek advice from experts who tell them which are the best gadgets to buy, where to get them and at what prices."
  • "Self-sufficients" who "prefer to find out for themselves what they need to know in order to satisfy their needs. Self-sufficients do not pay much attention to other people's recommendations of new products; they prefer to do their own research and make up their minds in their own time."
  • "Unclassifieds," the independent party of the social networking scene. "Two-thirds of the population did not definitively fall into any of these social network categories," which was to be expected, Gartner said. "In addition, people more often than not exhibit characteristics of different categories and may fulfill different roles in different social contexts."

The "take-away" from the research firm's findings? "Companies attempting to use social networks should develop relationships with key customers over a period of time and progressively refine the social network profiles of those individuals. In this way, the most suitable individuals can be targeted with the right information, products and promotions in the most cost-effective way," said Ingelbrecht.

That seems to be well underway already. Just check your Facebook or Twitter accounts, and gauge how much of the information you're seeing is news or marketing. Personal stuff? Getting harder to find inbetween the white noise of promotions and news alerts about another bank folding or the Tea Party's latest antics.

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