In the rush to adopt social networks today, we hear of client companies pressing for more “fans” or “friends” to their social network communities. But what are “fans” and “friends” really, in the context of branding and marketing? What do these mean in real life?

The phenomenon of social networks in this age is very similar to the dotcom boom just a decade ago. We cannot deny the surge in interest, adoption, and commercialization of social networks as a current mainstay of marketing and branding, just as corporations began to adopt “brochureware” websites when the Internet became commercialized in the 1990s.

However, it is important to understand the subtlety of the meaning of social networks when it comes to branding and marketing.

First of all, the concept of friendship on social networks is very different from a real-life friendship. Real-life friendship is often distilled through a long period of time, and very few true friends will remain (sometimes none at all). But, you can more than certain that those true friends who remain, will be people you are willing to trust, and vice versa. More likely than not, in times of difficulty, true friends will tend to your needs and care for you. And certainly, true friends are people you want to spend time with. Imho, the older we are, the more likely we intend to spend as much time with such true friends as we physically can. Nothing beats having a few true friends over, sit down and enjoy deep and long conversations, over some pastries and tea (or coffee).

However, “friends” on a social network account may be people we may never have met, may never meet, and may not want to meet in real life.

In some social network systems, one has to be a “friend” or a “fan” of a particular account in order to read the writings, access certain privileged information or services, and so on. The incentivization with contests and rewards also blur the lines of such “friendship”.

Therefore, the “friendship” in such a scenario becomes very different from a real-life true friend. In fact, in some social networks, one signs up as a “fan” or “friend” simply to criticize the said group. Therefore, is such a person a fan, or friend at all?

In the concept of social networks, increasingly, there are new measurements to gauge how much of a “friend” a person is to our social network groups, including the use of the amount of engagement such a person has with our group. This is of course a good measurement of how intense or committed such a person is to communicating with our group (positively or negatively).

But, having said that, we need not lose sleep over such transient online relations compared to our real lives. It is after all, for us in marketing, just a channel of communication, akin to the mainstream media. And when social networks fade away in the future, some other medium may replace them. We simply adapt to whatever new channel rolls along, and study or adopt new channels judiciously and efficiently.