Is Content the Catalyst for Social Media?

What is social? On its face, it sounds like an easy enough question with an answer that at this point seems intuitive – Facebook. God knows Facebook and the entire industry has spoon-fed us and nurtured us along the way to draw this singular conclusion. That said, for some time I have challenged my media sellers and buyers in the business to rethink what social means. What is social? Is it content or a platform?

I think, for most, the answer is clearly content. The platform facilitates the discovery and distribution of content – whether that content is professional, advertorial, or just status changes, useless updates, and comments. Smart marketers have clearly begun to realize, largely in part to a lot of trial and error, that Facebook is not a great “advertising” medium in the traditional spots and dots, or banner image and paid text link sort of way. The most valued way to leverage Facebook is to create content that users are going to find relevant, authentic, and engaging (that sort of sounds like publishing!). But that isn’t so easy on Facebook.

We have been led to believe that Facebook is the best place to tap into this large, social audience. Now, I use the term social audience to describe an audience that is engaged around content that aligns with a particular affinity or interest, commenting, sharing, and more. Clearly Facebook has a large audience and one that is social – sharing content. However, I find that Facebook is a great way to leverage a network of people to help me discover content that I may not be actively looking for – the cool video, a funny joke, or an interesting article. It sounds more like Google or a social search engine – a powerful content discovery platform – than a valuable publishing environment or a powerful brand advertising medium. For most publishers, Facebook is a very effective content marketing platform, much like Google is for search discovery. However, unlike search where I am in the mindset of “searching” or seeking out a particular piece of information or content, with Facebook I sort of stumble upon it. Therein lies the rub.

It’s about mindset. For the most part, when I am on Facebook, perusing profiles, checking out my wall, or the walls of friends, I am not looking for any particular piece of content or information. I am more likely than not a bit bored, have some free time, and am easily distracted or led to content (both on and off Facebook). That doesn’t present a very targeted or attractive marketing medium or opportunity. Combine that with smaller, poorly located ad slots and Facebook, from an advertising standpoint, gets less attractive.

So why all of the hype? For one, how do you ignore 900 million users and the ability to target ads based on hundreds of data points? Once Madison Avenue bought into it, their clients bought in, then it became all about social and Facebook. The train had left the station, gathered a ton of momentum, and now is a runaway with few advertisers courageous enough or agencies fiscally motivated enough to call it into question and ask the train to slow down. When the industry dialogue has evolved over time to be more about efficiency than efficacy, more about margin and less about impact, then we are left with an ecosystem focused on how to push media dollars against the largest, most cost-efficient advertising platforms or solutions. The old adage of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has never been spoken more loudly than by those in our industry trying to keep the train rolling forward.

The reality, and the point of this piece, is that the real social experience is not happening on Facebook, but rather on premium content sites. Modern websites are designed to publish great content to a very targeted audience, within an environment that encourages social interaction around that content. Sure, we make the content social with share and like buttons, but we largely do it as a mechanism to surface up our content to a broader audience in the hopes that people are pulled back into the conversation happening on-site.

The true brand advertising opportunity is building a media campaign or marketing program that integrates with high-quality, premium content, within a contextually relevant environment; and engages the right target audience, encouraging them to start a conversation on-site but then to share that conversation, and the content that is a part thereto, with their friends across social networks. The best programs are content-led, with an eye toward integrating one’s brand and marketing message in and around the content in an authentic and meaningful way. In the end, the goal should be to start or seed a conversation on relevant sites, with the right audience, and then empower and allow that conversation to be shared and extended out into Facebook and other social networks so that you get the amplified, “earned media” effect of allowing your core target audience to be your cheerleaders.

This can happen on Facebook, but in a much more limited and restricted way, as marketers are finding out. What’s the value of a like? Not much. Some marketers, if they have the right type of product, messaging, or campaign, can start a conversation on Facebook around content, but its scale and effectiveness is more limited.

People are social, but content drives the conversation. Depending on who we want to market to, in most instances, finding sites that reach a concentrated group of targeted consumers and creating a marketing program that starts by engaging them in context around quality content that can be socialized easily are key to a successful marketing campaign. It is imperative that publishers better understand the social power and value of their content and site environments; that they better educate their sales people (who are the front face of their businesses) on how to effectively tell and sell this story; and to be consultative in their approach to working with marketers to create content and programs that will start a social or sharable conversation.

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