DAVOS, Switzerland — The leaders of Facebook and other social media sites have long seen some grim writing on their wall. While spectacular popularity has turned them into household names, they haven't found a way to transform all those friends, fans and followers into profits.
On Wednesday, in a rare encounter of rivals, the chiefs of Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn met with industry experts at the World Economic Forum to plot strategies for the future — and help other business ride their success as well.
The common theme: developing social networks so they get beyond socializing to drive humanitarian causes — Haiti earthquake relief, for example — or help businesses better communicate with their customers to increase sales.
While participants touted social media's ability to reach out, form relationships and keep people and businesses linked together, they offered scant insight into how the companies can make money, cashing in on their enormous fan base.
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"What's important for them is to become indispensable to consumers," said Augie Ray, a senior analyst for social computing with Forrester Research Inc.
"For Facebook, one of the interesting things is the value of advertising that is super relevant and also increasingly involves the preferences and actions of your friends," he said.
Facebook, which draws revenue from advertising posted down the right side of its site, has generated buzz about a possible initial public offering this year.
If it does go public, Twitter and LinkedIn may be tempted to follow, he said.
Evan Williams, chief executive and co-founder of Twitter, the popular micro-blogging tool, said more and more small businesses were listening to their customers via the site, capitalizing on the way individuals build relationships across social media platforms.
"This is the heart of what a lot of social networks are about, they're about communicating... but they're also about relationships of all types," he said.
Randi Zuckerberg, whose brother, Mark Zuckerberg, founded Facebook, showed how the use of the site, along with others, promoted charitable giving to Haiti after the devastating earthquake there, providing information and a source for donating money.
Experts see huge business opportunities remaining in social media sites. George Colony, chief executive of Forrester, noted that "we now spend five to six hours a day on media," a figure second only to the amount of sleep people get.
Of the 15 top trafficked Web sites, seven of those are social by nature, including Facebook, which draws some 130 million views a day; MySpace, which counts some 50 million to 60 million views a day; and Twitter, which has some 25 million views daily, according to ComScore Inc.