Maybe Sisyphus is more like it. Despite continual efforts to improve targeting and engagement with social networking consumers, success stories are still few and far between.
Social networking platforms arguably beat out both search and video this year for the title of most-hyped marketing vehicle. The year was littered with major ad-related initiatives from dominant players MySpace and Facebook, mostly met with industry acclaim. Yet despite advances, most social marketing budgets going into 2008 remain small, and most campaigns small-minded.
During the year, alpha dog MySpace and Silicon Valley favorite Facebook separately introduced ad targeting based on users' profile data, marking the first major attempts by either firm to connect marketers to social network users based on volunteered interests.
In May, Facebook rocked the developer world with its open platform strategy, spawning an avalanche of branded apps and a fledgling app-based media market. Then in November it dropped another bomb in the form of two ad-driven initiatives. One of these, its Beacon behavioral tracking program, spurred a privacy outcry when users learned their sensitive transactional data could be broadcast to friends and "friends." As pressure mounted in the unlikely form of a MoveOn.org campaign, Facebook altered the program, making it opt-in.
A further social marketing trend has been the rise of so-called widget ads. Though they got their start well before this year, ad units with rich functionality and sharing functions gained momentum in 2007 with the launch of Google's gadget ads and similar offerings from EyeWonder and others.
Yet despite the palpable feeling that social networks represent -- or at least point to -- a seismic shift for marketing in general, advertisers and agencies have produced only a flurry of smash hits. Achieving mass reach for socially driven ad campaigns may simply never happen. In another strike against social marketing this year, many ads on Facebook and MySpace are highly untargeted and appeal only to the lowest common denominator.
"The majority of advertising within social networks is devoid of strategy," said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus. Schafer believes the problem is partly advertiser laziness and partly confusion about how to approach a channel that demands equal parts creative, media, and public relations savvy.
"Social media is a medium within a medium, and I don't think there's been enough cohesive thought into what a social media strategy is or should be," he said.
And budgets are still tentative. Even though MySpace's reach is now on par with the largest portals and ad networks, Jupiter Research analyst Emily Riley said social marketing campaigns generally spend under $25,000. "They're definitely still in the testing phase," she notes.
Both Riley and Chad Stoller, VP of emerging media for Organic, noted a major risk for social media heading into 2008 is the impact of clutter, including both ad clutter and app clutter. One Facebook group called simply "This has got to stop" has garnered nearly 500,000 members.
"I don't want to be a vampire. I don't want to be a pirate. Leave me alone," the group's page says. "Pointless applications are ruining Facebook."
Such an attitude could dampen the efforts of marketers who want to distribute their expensively produced branded apps to social networking users.
Privacy will also likely continue to dog future social marketing efforts.
"The biggest thing about the Beacon program is it pulled the curtain off of this thing called behavioral targeting," said Stoller. "Joe consumer has no idea about behavioral targeting...There's going to be a backlash."
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
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