Facebook Gets Advertising Glam

In many ways, social network advertising is the equivalent of a white Gap t-shirt. Just about everyone you know has purchased one at some point, but for all its practicality it’s about as far from glamorous as you can get. Buy a text-based Facebook ad with a tiny little image, and you’re buying a Gap tee. It’s no evening gown, but it works.

In the online world, one might compare Facebook ads to paid search placements. There’s something utilitarian about them. They’re affordable, easy to create and manage, and offer the precision targeting advertisers seek — and the results you’ll get are similar to what a paid search campaign can produce. If paid search is the workhorse of online media placements, then Facebook ads are its colt.

In spite of their value on paper this wasn’t the case until recently, when brands and marketers started to take Facebook ads more seriously. Emarketer recently reported that some 80 million people — over 40 percent of the U.S. Internet population — visited a social network at least once a month last year (an increase of 11 percent over 2007). Meanwhile, comScore says 22 percent of the worldwide Internet audience has visited Facebook. That’s a staggering one in five Internet users.

These are two compelling reasons to invest in the site’s ads. Still, they sometimes leave us wanting more. Enter a partnership between video site Hulu.com and embedded content developer and syndication service SplashCast that I’m hoping will redefine social network advertising and the way marketers perceive it.

The alliance was announced in December as a way for social network users to access their favorite primetime shows free of charge on sites like Facebook and MySpace. The vehicle is a “social TV player” that delivers full-length episodes, video clips (many of them exclusive and “behind-the-scenes”), and fan-submitted photo and video content from 20 different TV shows that can also be viewed on Hulu.com.

Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” player, for example, features clips that refer to episodes yet to air — a gold mine for fans of the show. It also links to video content from other Bravo TV shows, including “Project Runway,” “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List,” and “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” New episodes and clips are sent to the nearly full-page player immediately to keep content current.

Of course, the player can be sponsored by advertisers, and what a sponsorship it is. Current sponsor Infiniti features its new G Sedan model in all its glory through a massive Flash format that resolves to a static banner to remain at the bottom of the player throughout its use. Click the banner to “view more images,” and it expands once more to offer a full photo gallery of glorious shots that make the most of the player’s large page footprint and allows the user to remain within the social site and video player while experiencing the car.

To find an ad like this on a social site like Facebook is unusual. In fact, it seems out of place, more suited to a campaign on NYTimes.com. It brings a certain glamour to the site that didn’t exist for brands before, and that will take some getting used to. But it’s just what social networks need: the rich, interactive advertising that consumers experience on other sites, smack in the middle of the place they cumulatively spend about 33.9 billion minutes per month according to comScore global data on site engagement.

In the interest of again comparing Facebook to paid search ad purveyors like Google, the number of monthly minutes global audiences spent on the search engine last fall was 41.6 billion. So we can add site engagement to the list of similarities between social ads and paid search placements, but we can’t add gorgeous, immersive ads. That honor now falls to Facebook.

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