Are Advertisers Brave Enough for Social Media?

If you know social media (define), you’ll understand the pun is intended when I say it’s the latest, ever-louder buzz. In particular, it’s a result of some recent large deals with social networking sites: Google’s $900 million ad coup with MySpace and other News Corp. properties, and Microsoft’s counteraction deal (of undisclosed size) with the second largest social networking site, Facebook. Even before these deals transpired, advertisers have been salivating at the idea of tapping into such desirable concentrated masses. But they’ve been held back by privacy, security, brand integrity, and campaign effectiveness concerns.

Privacy and Security Concerns

Advertisers are scared by high-profile stories about pedophile predators on MySpace and the resulting public backlash. Social networking sites are fighting hard to combat this negative perception. MySpace has appointed a safety czar to oversee its site, and Facebook wants advertisers to know every user must be authenticated and no one can hide behind a false identity.

Maintaining Brand Integrity

The advertiser’s impression that social media sites lack control over user-generated content leads to adjacency and brand integrity concerns. How can we know what kind of content our ad will appear next to, they ask. Though sites like Facebook assert they (and the user communities) do have control over the content, experts and social media publishers still agree advertisers must be thick-skinned and comfortable with the fact their ads may appear next to uncensored content.

Creating Effective Social Media Ad Campaigns

The solution, say experts and insiders, is in treating social media as an entirely different type of online ad buy. “Advertisers can’t just plaster up their same ad stuff and expect it to work,” says my ClickZ colleague Gary Stein, director of strategy for Ammo Marketing. Social media sites appeal to their users because of the sense of belonging and community, and an advertiser is not necessarily welcome without an invitation.

“Agencies and advertisers who try to do disruptive ad campaigns [on social media sites] just don’t understand the environment, and the users will not respond well to this,” cautions Mike Murphy, VP of media sales for Facebook.

Immersing oneself in the user experience seems to be the advertiser’s path to social media success. “Social media advertising is really about relationship marketing,” says Stein. Experts advise campaigns must be unique, must have a value add for the targeted users, should focus on a long-term relationship and not an immediate result, and almost always is more about the content and substance than flashy, cool creative. A June 2006 study of GameSpot video bloggers conducted by InterPublic Group’s Emerging Media Lab finds 25 percent would accept payment to make a commercial about a product, while 32 percent wouldn’t make a blatant commercial but would create content about that brand.

The social media audience, already vocal and engaged, responds well to surveys and polls. They want to provide their opinions. They want to have a voice and feel they may influence some control over what’s shown to their community. Advertisers who seek this kind of feedback before developing a campaign (and who take the feedback to heart) are likely to encounter greater success. Be forewarned: “Don’t ask for something you’re not willing to hear the ugly about, too,” advises Murphy.

Challenges Still Exist

Social media sites themselves grapple with the challenges of monetizing the vast traffic they attract. Some sites, like Wikipedia, remain ad free. Bloggers have ad networks and sponsored links. Still others, like video sharing site YouTube, are just getting their feet wet. Only this month did YouTube start accepting banner ads, and last week it announced the creation of two new ad concepts to help integrate brand advertising in a user-appealing way.

Social media advertising’s unique nature can make it a tough sell. Each social media campaign is a custom solution. This can mean added production and consulting costs. “The client has a hard time working the numbers,” adds Stein. “In part, the client has to take a leap of faith if they want to give this a try.” Several agencies acknowledge engaging the client in this conversation is getting easier with all the media attention (in fact, a lot of clients are initiating the dialogue themselves). But overcoming skepticism and pushing approval up the chain of command remains a hurdle.

Will the brave advertisers please stand up?

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