As I write this, Facebook has a new ad format called Sponsored Stories. I say "as I write this" because Facebook has a track record of introducing features that it sees as no-problem-at-all only to discover that they absolutely tick their users off, and have to pull said features down immediately. I imagine that Sponsored Stories is just such a feature, but I'll get to that in a bit.
Sponsored Stories is a mechanism by which posts can be used as a part of an ad. If, for example, I check in at Fred's Coffee Shop and post "tasty coffee!" Fred's Coffee Shop can grab that post and put it (along with my photo) into an ad that would then show up over on the right-hand side of the page, in the advertising section of the site. Now, this would only show up to my friends, and only to my friends whom I have allowed to see these sorts of posts. In fact, the displaying of these posts is essentially redundant, since my friends will have already seen the post. The point, though, of Sponsored Stories appears to simply be to both highlight a particular post from a friend in your network and give it some permanent placement on your page, since it won't scroll away.
Facebook, like Twitter, has been increasingly pushing to create new advertising formats like this, which allow advertisers the ability to capture some chunk of the conversation stream that it finds to be valuable and use it as a part of an advertisement, not only because it is a new type of ad format, but because the content that is being used as advertising copy began its life as a simple endorsement, what we've begun calling "earned media," as a part of a construct introduced about a year or so ago, dividing the world into bought, owned, and earned media. That was a good construct, but we made a big mistake when we cooked it up. We thought that they were three separate things.
Crossing the Streams
As media becomes more fragmented, we all felt a compelling need for a simple way of describing different types of media. From a few different sources, we began to hear this distinction:
Bought media referred to any instance where you paid out real money to place a message on someone else's property. That could be a banner on a website or a product placement in a TV show.
Owned media referred to any property that you owned, yourself. This one could be your own website, catalog, or even a retail store.
Earned media was the new kid on the block. It referred to any time that a person was using their own time and resources to talk about your brand, without any direct compensation. Social media is the big driver of earned media, today, with people "Liking" products and brands on Facebook, for example, and having that action show up in their news feed.
Increasingly, communications planners have developed strategies that address all three of these media types in an integrated way, but still essentially treat them as three separate things. But like most everything in a world of deep innovation, that distinction is not really holding up.
Let's return back to the redundant nature of Sponsored Stories. When I post about Fred's Coffee Shop, I'm already generating value for Fred, through my endorsement. But what Facebook is allowing the brand to do is amplify that action. And why not? We've known for a long time that the single most compelling commercial message a consumer gets is a recommendation from a friend.
Facebook is able to do this, thanks to the particularly powerful terms and conditions of the site: the messages you put on the service are the property of Facebook. The company is therefore totally within its rights to sell that post to an advertiser. This is bound to raise issues with some consumers: even though there isn't any real harm occurring, people probably aren't thinking that their actions are for sale in this particular way and will probably balk.
But if Sponsored Stories goes away (or gets watered down), its presence at the very least should get us all thinking about these three new media types as part of the same thing. Consumers want to know if what they're seeing has been paid for by an advertiser or not (as does the trade commission), but there is still space for us to imagine models where traditional commercial messages can be amplified through social networks, and that the value generated through social networks can be picked up by paid advertising.
All of this, though, is really cementing social media as a critical part of the media landscape and a part of media strategies. Social has long been thought of as the channel through which messages can be pushed out and broadcast. Now we are seeing it as a powerful source of content that can be leveraged not only inside the networks themselves, but also across other channels. Actions people take are increasingly becoming content and content has always driven interactive marketing.
Which means that your job as an interactive marketing ninja is never done. Long gone are the times when you could focus your efforts on creating something awesome like a website (owned media), buying a bunch of banners or keywords to drive people there (bought media), and then hoping that some of those people will talk about how great you are (earned media). Today, you need to see all of those three things as tightly integrated, passing content and consumers back and forth and ultimately creating more value with each interaction.
Or, you run the risk of staying in a single silo and hoping for the best. Actually, there's not much risk there. You're guaranteed to get left behind.
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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.
March 19, 2014