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The New Digital Altruism

  |  December 3, 2007   |  Comments

How social networks may be a fundamentally different medium for advertisers.

Advertising is a fairly simple science. Essentially, it's driven by a single economic principle: people are motivated to maximize value for themselves.

Pick any ad in traditional media and you can see this at work. Messages are crafted to either show you that a product is of high value and low price or give you some quality that you want, such as being attractive, organized, or non-smelly.

What about our newest media: social media? In the shift from offline to online media, we must reconsider the way we advertise products, moving quickly away from communicating product benefits through carefully crafted and widely broadcast messages to engaging environments where consumers control all elements and discover benefits for themselves.

Social media needs to be considered as a new media to create effective marketing strategies. This medium has almost nothing to do with big players crafting messages to be consumed.

Social media is more of an open space, dedicated to a particular purpose or achieving a certain goal. And, as the point has been made countless times, any message from any source can appear and grow, based solely on whether the community wants it to grow (as opposed to being based on the size of a media buy).

Why Messages Grow in Social Media

Clearly, messages can rise or fall quickly within social media. What has never been clear is why.

Compliments and complaints, jokes and pleas for help can simply rise -- and do. We see these things happen and often try to figure out why a certain thing became popular, but these are always lagging indicators.

We're figuring why something happened, after it happened. It's forensic, not predictive. We never seem to be able to say, "This particular video will become popular," or, "We believe this blogger will wield enormous influence next year."

This is, naturally, a critically important question for brands. More brands are adding social to their overall media mix. And while no ad is ever guaranteed to succeed, we at least have some models, metrics, and methods that can help navigate toward success.

As advertisers integrate social media into the mix, it becomes high time to do the same for this new medium.

Here's the thing: there are a few really good reasons to believe this medium is fundamentally different for advertisers. That's because people seem to operate under a different motivation.

Where traditional advertising has relied upon an assumption that people are motivated to do good for themselves, it may be that people operate -- at least in social media -- for everyone else. The guiding principle of social media may, in fact, be altruism, which is a big deal for advertisers.

New Evidence

Consider the findings of BazaarVoice's study about the attitudes and motivations of people who post reviews of products online. Pretty clearly, this is the corner of social media that may be the most critical for online advertisers.

Potential customers encounter these posts on their way to buy a product. This is essentially point-of-sale advertising, done by anyone who feels like writing something.

BazaarVoice found some interesting things, though, in its survey of 1,300 posters.

It ends up that 90 percent of posters write reviews to "help others make better buying decisions." On the face of this, it seems pretty obvious that this would be the reason. The point of online reviews is just that -- to help people make better decisions. That's why people read them, of course. But that's also why people write them.

Couple that with another finding: 79 percent felt they were giving back to the reviewing community by writing their reviews. That's a bit amazing. This group of people has decided to help each other and build a community simply because they want to do it.

When someone reads a review that prompts a purchase, a valuable interaction has occurred, similar in value to someone watching a commercial. However, the nature of that communication moment isn't based on self-motivation but rather on a focus on others within a community.

Advertiser's Mandate

What this ultimately means for advertisers is we have an opportunity to approach this new media in an entirely different way, starting from a different place. When you make the big decision to bring social media into your media mix, you must consider your consumer's altruistic, community-building impulses. It may require some new research and definitely a new look at how they behave.

But if you're able to reconsider this aspect of your consumer, use that as the starting point for your ideating and strategizing.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Stein

Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.

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