South African Web users are flocking to international social networking sites such as MySpace and YouTube, which means that these Web sites offer local marketers a host of exciting new advertising opportunities.

That’s according to Jacqui Boyd, media director at Acceleration. She says that social networking sites such as MySpace, YouTube, Friendster, LiveJournal, LinkedIn, Flickr and FaceBook continue to grow fast and already rank among the most popular sites on the World Wide Web.

“Our research shows that these Web sites are attracting millions of page views from South African Internet users each month. MySpace and YouTube already rival the largest local portals for popularity among South African Internet users, with more users discovering them with each day that passes,” says Boyd.

The trend underlines how important it is for South African advertisers to keep the global nature of the Internet in mind when they are planning and executing their online campaigns, she adds.

Social networking sites have turned into a big business in the US, with some market watchers predicting that they could eventually become bigger and more heavily trafficked than search heavyweights, Google and Yahoo!. Google recently bought popular online video site YouTube for $1.65 billion in stock to propel itself into the social networking world.

Marketers will spend about $280 million on advertising and marketing on US networking sites this year, which is expected to grow to nearly $1.9 billion by 2010, according to eMarketer.

YouTube users download more than 100 million videos (many of which are short videos created by the site's users) each day from the site. MySpace, already the sixth most popular Web site on the Web, hosted more than 100 million member profiles by August this year. MySpace’s 30 billion page views are second only to Yahoo.

“South African brands can target local users on international social networking portals with geo-targeting. Apart from traditional banner adverts, most social networking portals also allow advertisers to target registered users that fall within a specific demographic such as age group,” says Boyd.

“Social networking sites also allow companies to sponsor specific categories or types of content that are aligned with their brands or likely to attract people within their target markets. For example, a company might want its ad to be served to users who download Paris Hilton or Madonna music videos,” Boyd adds.

“Social networking sites are certainly no longer the exclusive domain of teens, although age demographics vary widely between the various portals” says Boyd.

Boyd notes that more than half the visitors to Myspace are now 35 or over, up from less than 40 percent last year. The proportion of the audience aged between 12 and 24 has fallen to 30 percent from 44 percent, according to a recent comScore Media Metrix survey.

Concludes Boyd: “Some local brands are already experimenting with social networking sites with some of their online advertising budget and are surprised at just how many South Africans are using these sites to communicate with friends, create content, entertain themselves and access information. For the right brand, devoting some of the online budget to social networking sites can provide great returns.”