GHENT: Word-of-mouth is the best way for brands to influence consumers on social networks, a new study covering a number of major markets has found.

Insites Consulting surveyed 2,884 people in 14 countries around the world, including Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, Russia, the UK and US.

It found that 72% belonged to at least one social network, reaching 95% in Brazil, 82% in Portugal, 80% in Spain, 77% in the UK and 76% in Italy.

By contrast, only 56% of German contributors, 43% of Chinese respondents and 38% of Russians had signed up to this kind of platform.

More specifically, 51% had joined Facebook – which also enjoyed the greatest global awareness – a figure that stood at 20% for MySpace, 17% for Twitter and 16% for professional sites like LinkedIn.

However, Facebook's dominance was not universal, with Orkut taking the top spot in Brazil, Hyves in Holland, and Hi5 in both Romania and Portugal.

Of the properties assessed, MySpace was in the best position in China, with a penetration rate of 18%, but local players are largely pre-eminent in this market.

Overall, the average user worldwide logged-in to these sites twice a day, with Orkut and Facebook among the offerings that enjoyed the highest levels of return usage.

By contrast, 64% of people who had previously registered on MySpace stated that they now visited "less often than before", measured against 58% for Hi5 and 42% for Twitter.

Sending messages was the most popular activity, on 94%, with viewing pictures and video on 91%, checking the status of friends on 89%, uploading pictures on 83% and joining groups on 79%.

Currently, just 26% of the audience use their mobile as a tool to access social networks, rising to 40% in Asia.

"It is becoming difficult for new social sites to recruit members. The majority of surfers are happy with their current situation and do not want to become members of a new platform," said Steven Van Belleghem, managing partner of InSites Consulting.

"Furthermore, they do not intend to reduce their use of their current sites. There is therefore a certain degree of stability in this market."

Insites Consulting argued that 26% of its cohort were "addicts", a demographic that was typically female, aged 18–44 years old and frequently used social networks, largely doing so to "build an image".

A further 14% were "voyeurs" who regularly logged-in but rarely contributed, belonged to a number of different services, often including Twitter, with these habits being especially widespread in Brazil.

"Passive users", or 47% of the panel, were generally men aged 30–55 years old, who preferred professional membership portals, but were not among the most "expert" internet users.

Finally, 13% tended to focus on "personal" use based around "special occasions", with individuals fitting this profile normally 18–30 years old and most common in Russia and the US.

Some 44% of the sample said a company posting information about itself was "credible" – including a majority in Eastern Europe, Asia and South America – but just 35% had become a "fan" of a brand.

When asked to pick the "most credible" source of information about products, 38% of those polled chose other users, compared with 32% for the brand itself, 7% for journalists and 3% for marketers.

Data sourced from Insites Consulting; additional content by Warc staff