The Parasite Paradox

One of my favorite things about this Web 2.0/open source/API (define)/social media generation of Web properties is that some of the most popular new sites aren’t just destinations, they’re utilities. They’re useful not only to the people who use them but to other Web sites as well. But they inherently create problems for traditional-thinking media planners and buyers.

“Huh?” you say.

Let me explain.

Simply knowing some companies exist to provide tools to improve consumers’ lives is the first step to making your advertising more relevant. Twitter, Digg, Google Maps, Apple’s new iWeb, and hundreds of other tools should be a major subject of conversation not only at interactive creative agencies but also interactive media agencies.

But does a tool alone make a good advertising platform? Not usually. This presents a huge challenge for media buyers who have traditionally had to think within IAB-specified ad sizes and are used to dealing with properties that actually have ad sales teams.

Maybe it’s just a question of semantics. Are these tools to be looked at as technologies, making it the realm of the creative teams? Or are they Web sites, making it the purview of the media departments?

Although these tools really do build value for consumers, they’re difficult to advertise within because adequate, universal models don’t exist yet (if they ever will). And if advertisers do find their way in, they likely sacrifice performance for association.

In other words, they’re willing to accept extremely low click-through/interaction rates in exchange for potential favorable brand association.

The best option, then, for utilizing these tools/properties/Web sites for advertising purposes may not be advertising on them at all. I call that the Parasite Paradox. I know, “parasite” sounds so negative. But by definition, a parasite is an organism that derives nourishment from another organism. Applying that definition to new advertising principles won’t lock us into merely looking at inventory availability as the limits of what can be done.

As advertisers, whether in the creative or media disciplines, we must think beyond inventory. Rich media isn’t just what can be served in an ad unit, but what can be used to enrich the user experience on behalf of our brand or message.

Creating ad programs that utilize technologies consumers derive benefits from every day can open consumers’ eyes to ways of using their favorite tools. And in the process, it’ll create goodwill for the brand. It can even make the technologies they’re using better and more practical.

Take Twittervision, for example. It utilizes Twitter in a whole new way, visualizing the communication happening between individuals around the world. Facebook apps are providing entertainment and utility to millions of social networkers. Google Maps utilities are still being developed. Heck, Twittervision is a mashup of Twitter and Google Maps.

There’s no reason advertisers can’t come up with these experiences to satisfy consumers’ needs for utility or just plain entertainment. The way API culture has matured allows for the hosts to benefit as much as the parasites. The more people plug into the Amazon API, the more sales are generated. The more people plug into the Facebook API, the more use they receive, creating more ad inventory (that few are clicking on, but that’s another column).

And that’s the paradox.

To achieve this vision, creative and media functions must work more closely together to achieve ideas that resonate with the consumer.

While that seems like a paradox, too, I have hope for the future.

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