While legislators and marketers are debating the rules of online privacy, some consumers are taking matters into their own hands. Unfriending is a growing trend and this change in behavior may affect marketer plans for social media. A new study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows the extent of consumer attempts to manage their online reputations and social profiles.

Companies such as Facebook are counting on consumers to spread the word about new products and services online. In return, marketers will pay social network platform providers significant sums in ad dollars. But what if consumers cut back on their social networks?

In the past two years, more consumers are doing just that. Here are the statistics that support the claims from Pew analysts that consumers are snipping some of their social links:

  •  Untagged photo 37%
  • Deleted comments 44%
  • Unfriended someone 63%

The research also shows that women are more aggressive about protecting their privacy than men. About 67% of women with social media profiles restrict access to their friends. For men, the comparable number is 48%. Similarly, more women, 67%, than men 58%, delete friends.

And privacy is not solely the concern of older consumers. In fact, younger consumers appear to be more conservative with privacy settings. The following numbers show who limits social media profile settings to friends  only, by age group:

  •  Ages 18-29 59%
  • Ages 30-49 60%
  • Ages 50-64 52%
  • Ages 65+ 55%

As activity on social media sites increases, users are clearly paying attention. This trend has given rise to a new industry – companies that supply reputation management services. But the move to unfriend may have more significant meaning for marketers. If too many consumers decide to make social media a smaller part of their life, marketers may not be able to reach them so easily through the platform.

The connection between social media, marketing and higher sales is sometimes difficult to me. Marketers are still experimenting with the right way to incorporate Facebook and other social sites into their strategies. Several high-profile companies which had opened retail stores on Facebook are closing them. Gamestop, J.C. Penney, Gap, and Nordstrom are in this category.

For now, the perfect social media marketing model is still being tweaked but consumers are clearly paying more attention to how their information is being used – by friends and businesses.

[Sources: Lutz, Ashley. Gamestop to J.C. Penney Shut Facebook Stores. Bloombergy.com. 22 Feb. 2012. Web. 9 Mar. 2012; Madden, Mary. Privacy management on social media sites. Pewinternet.org. 22 Feb. 2102. Web. 9 Mar. 2012]