Is Ello a No-No for Brands?

It’s been less than two months since Ello – the ad-free, anti-Facebook social network – went live. In the interest of staying current, brands and agencies are keeping a close eye on its activities. The dawn of a new social site is always cause for excitement, and with its minimalist design and exclusivity (Ello is currently invitation-only), many businesses are asking themselves how they might use it to connect with consumers. There’s just one problem: Ello has in essence raised a sign that reads, “NO BRANDS ALLOWED.”

The site’s manifesto says it all: “Your social network is owned by advertisers…Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold…We believe there is a better way.” Ostensibly, those consumers who’ve signed up to use the site did so in part because they’re on board with a marketing-free social media experience. The question is, can that experience actually exist?

We’ve seen the push and pull between social sites and advertisers before. In 2009, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone asserted that the company was “not pursuing advertising.” The following year it announced plans to offer Promoted Tweets. In 2010, Tumblr founder David Karp went on the record as saying he was “pretty opposed to advertising” on the site. Two years later Tumblr created Sponsored Products. It now offers a whole range of advertising opportunities.

Did Twitter and Tumblr do an about-face because they needed to monetize their products? Naturally. But brand demand for ads surely played a part as well. Long before these sites introduced formal ad products, businesses were finding ways to market themselves on the platforms. Ello has made it pretty clear it won’t (in fact, it can’t) sell ads, but a number of big brands and small businesses have joined anyway. They’re experimenting. Finding their footing. Feeling things out. Should they be there? Should you?

Some say stay away. Others caution, “right now, this is not the place for you.” Still others suggest that Ello could be a good fit for stylish brands like Apple and Coke. To date the site appears to be used primarily by artists, photographers, and designers eager to showcase images and animated GIFs. To brands, I say this: make no sudden moves. You’re being watched.

Act Natural

If you do choose to create an account on Ello, be attentive to your tone. Things may change down the line, but at present this is not a community that will take kindly to pushy ad messages. Give your brand a human voice, mirror user enthusiasm for the site, adopt a self-deprecating tone – whatever it takes to prove to consumers that you aren’t crashing their party to sell Mr. Clean.

When it joined Ello late last month, Vancouver Magazine tweeted an endearing message inviting its followers to connect. Rather than sounding promotional, the message stayed true to the spirit of the community by reflecting other users’ enthusiasm and bewilderment about the site. It’s been using Ello sporadically so far, posting magazine photography and information about local Vancouver events. The mood of its feed is respectfully quiet – as it should be in this early stage of the game.

Think Content Distribution Platform, Not Social Ad

Apart from whether or not to join, the big question facing brands is what to post. Product pitches are definitely out. Instead, do your part to add value to the Ello community by sharing interesting content. Entrepreneur Magazine posts photos and snippets from its most recent articles, along with links to the stories in full.

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Budnitz Bicycles has somehow managed to attract more than 7,000 followers by posting short brand stories. Beautiful photography coupled with interactive copy (“How would you caption this photo of Model No.1?”) make for an engaging feed.

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Post Frequently

One of the main complaints we’ve been hearing about Ello is that its users aren’t posting. Business intelligence company RJMetrics found that, as of last month, 36 percent of users had yet to post, while just 20 percent were still active (i.e. posting) six days after signing up.

Rather than looking dismal, these numbers are on par with Twitter, Instagram, and Jelly’s early results. They may also create an opportunity for brands to offer interesting posts on a regular basis in an environment where users are hungry for content. Brands really shouldn’t join unless they’re serious about adding another social network to their content marketing calendars. Many – Netflix, The Wall Street Journal, and AOL News among them – signed up early but haven’t posted in weeks. The goal isn’t just to contribute to the community’s content in a meaningful way, but to be present while doing it.

Should you Ello? It’s a risk, with no guarantee of rewards. Make your choice carefully.

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