Credit card companies are using social networks to create ads that are more interactive and that deliver valuable consumer data.

Social media websites can help to identify consumers' interests, such as which businesses and brands they follow. When consumers "like" a product or company on Facebook, it can generate significant brand presence and strength. And that gives marketers an inside track to target those consumers.

"It's interesting as marketers to figure out how to harness the power of the comments going back and forth in social media," said Alex Craddock, Visa's head of North American marketing. "What's wonderful about social media is that consumers only share what they want to share, and that has value, not like TV where you interrupt the consumer [viewing experience]."

The major card brands are using social media to drive interest in their products and services, but the concept is still in its infancy. Recent efforts include a Visa Inc. travel campaign on Facebook, American Express Co.'s foray into Foursquare merchant discounts, MasterCard Inc.'s Facebook and Twitter postings and Discover Financial Services' use of Facebook to promote contests.

Visa in May launched a Facebook marketing campaign to promote travel. The effort is part of a larger campaign with television ads and social media, including a new photo and video application for Facebook called Memory Mapper, and a $100,000 "Trip of a Lifetime" sweepstakes.

Memory Mapper uses Google Maps satellite technology and consumers' own photos, videos and captions to create a visual depiction of their travels, something many consumers are already doing via Twitter and Facebook.

With social media, the consumer is choosing to engage with the marketing message, and that is a much more valued engagement, Craddock said.

"To ignore social media is a mistake," said Megan Bramlette, director of knowledge management at Auriemma Consulting Group. "Everyone is on it in one form or another, and it can be incredibly influential as it is increasingly becoming a primary communications channel for both consumers and businesses."

Finding a return on investment for social media is going to be difficult, but Bramlette said she is confident the card market will find success as more consumers adopt social media, particularly older users.

Connecting with consumers, especially via mobile phones, is a key strategy. American Express is already working to drive use with social media.

Amex in March announced an agreement to test payment deals through a mobile initiative with Foursquare Labs Inc. at South By Southwest, a music and technology festival in Austin, Texas.

Cardholders signed up for Foursquare, a location-based social media tool, so they could check in to locations that were then posted on the user's Facebook or Twitter account. Amex cardholders who signed up for the service received $5 statement credits for spending more than $5 at 60 merchants around the festival.

The Foursquare deal was a "powerful combination of digital behavior and spending behavior," said David Wolf, Amex vice president of global marketing capabilities. "At Amex, we need to go where our cardmembers and merchants are, and more and more are using social media apps like Foursquare," he said.

"We built the [application interface] for Foursquare to create a unique, customized American Express experience."

Discover has used Facebook to promote four contests this year.

"Our social media effort is very important to us," a Discover representative said. "We use it to engage our cardmembers and get them involved with a good cause, and we can potentially attract new cardmembers."

MasterCard, which says it has had a global social media presence for about a year on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, said it is just starting to make its move into more social media marketing, with plans for more efforts starting around July.

"We're defining what we're going to do, from being a presence to having a more robust consumer-engagement model," said Elizabeth Birenbaum, vice president of global digital marketing. "To get a digital branded connection is the heart of our mission with social media."

MasterCard's Facebook page promotes products and services, and has an applications tab for services like Priceless Picks, which recommends restaurants, retailers and travel locations.

Each medium has its own nuances, Birenbaum explained. In its World Elite promotion, MasterCard posted three to five Facebook status updates over several days but Tweeted three to five times daily, she said.

"We have to make sure we have the proper cadence and sequence on Facebook so we don't bang consumers over the head if MasterCard posts keep showing up in their news feed," Birenbaum said. It is more appropriate to post more often via Twitter because it is "more fluid and frenetic, and is more action-oriented than Facebook," she said.

Social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter are an important new marketing channel, analysts agree. But which efforts produce the best results in creating brand awareness and effectiveness remain unknown.

"When Internet marketing first started over 10 years ago, people weren't applying for credit cards online from day one," Bramlette said. "Initially it was used for research and general marketing."

But sites got more sophisticated as more consumers adapted to electronic channels, she said. "So these cultural changes evolve, and I expect it to evolve with social media," says Bramlette.