"Social Media" is a broad term that encompasses many consumer-generated content avenues, including blogs, forums, micro-blogs, social networks, product review sites, media sharing sites, virtual worlds, and more. Each of these, by its very nature, involves very different usage patterns from the others. This, in turn, has strong implications for marketers who wish to be socially active.
Two dimensions of usage patterns are of particular interest - reach and influence. Some media, such as the social networking sites Facebook and MySpace, have broad (and rapidly growing) audiences, and hence reach. However, because large percentages of the time spent on those sites are for personal connections and communications with friends/acquaintances, little time or focus is typically devoted to other communications. This, in turn, means that these sites have lower overall influence on consumers' buying habits and decisions.
On the other hand, media such as blogs and special interest forums, are generally topically focused; therefore, the people who visit and participate in these media are more inclined to be aware of, pay attention to, and consider opinions and other communications on the central or related topics of that media. As an example, a site like Chowhound, including all of its message boards and forums, is focused on culinary experiences. Therefore, participation in communities like this by a kitchen appliance manufacturer might have more impact than the same participation in a general social networking site. However, blogs and special interest forums have much smaller reaches than the large social networking sites. So, the number of impacted people on Facebook might still be as or more significant, because a low percentage times a huge population base can be large.
As another example, product review sites generally have an even lower reach than the other social media sites (especially when you narrow down the site visits to the general category of interest). However, the influence is probably higher than any other media because the people visiting these sites are specifically interested in your brand category and are also further along the sales cycle.
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