social network growthSocial networks continue to grow, and increasingly they’re becoming a core part of Americans’ online lives. This according to a just-released Experian study rife with interesting numbers, but also with misleading terminology surrounding consumer social media habits, most notably the loaded (and misapplied) term “addiction”.

The survey finds 43 percent of users say they visit social media sites (mostly Facebook) multiple times per day, up 28 percent over last year. Yet Experian’s haste to dub this “addiction” or the more tacit implication this is somehow a boon for marketers must be tempered with what people are using social networking for.

In a nutshell, social network sites are quickly becoming as essential as email for people keeping in touch with family and friends – and to a lesser extent, colleagues. The report finds 17 percent of social networkers communicate with their parents and 22 percent connect with their children, up from 9 percent and 15 percent,
respectively, a year ago.

Email has long been the #1 online activity. Search is #2. Social network communications are certainly supplementing the former, but are certainly no more deserving of the perjorative “addiction” label than is email activity.

Sixty-eight percent of social network users say they’ve become fans (or in more currently terminology, top social network brands by channel“liked”) something on the sites they frequent. While it cannot be assumed that brands are fully accountable for all this activity, the report does rank the top brands consumers are connecting with socially, broken down by channel. Interestingly, lower-end retail sites such as H&M and Hot Topic top Facebook and MySpace, while the more upscale Nordstrom dominates Twitter. Heavy social networkers are more likely to be found in the Northwest, and in areas with heavy concentrations of colleges and universities.

The takeaway from the report is likely that as social network communications rapidly become as essential to consumers as email, it’s rapidly becoming critical that businesses, partcularly B2C organizations, develop ways of integrating email communications with social media. But don’t get carried away — social networks have not replaced the email channel, and are unlikely ever to do so. However they are adding a level of choice  – and with it, complexity – to the marketing mix.