Is Everything You Know About Social Advertising Wrong?

Much as we like to talk about creating new models, most thinking these days about monetizing social media (on the social media site side) or tapping into the vast amounts of traffic to get messages across (on the marketing side) is pretty old-school. There are obviously lots of eyeballs and we’ve got messages we want those eyeballs to see, so it stands to reason that if we can get our messages in front of those eyeballs they’ll see them.


Doesn’t look like it, folks. Social networking CTRs (define)are abysmal, and nobody seems to be actually making any money

Perhaps we haven’t found the right model yet. There’s lots of homespun advice on plenty of marketing sites out there debating that issue. Perhaps there’s too much clutter. Maybe we’re just too far ahead of the curve, trying wacky stuff, like creating corporate islands in Second Life. Maybe new ideas like the much-vaunted widget are the answer.

I kind of doubt it. Others do, too. Just because there’s a lot of traffic out there doesn’t necessarily mean it can automatically be translated into revenue and it’s a good place to put your ads.

Why? Because this kind of thinking isn’t that far from the kind of thinking that’s been driving advertising for a long time. It’s intrusive, interruption-driven thinking that says, “Well, if lots of people are looking at something, then placing our ad in front of that something is going to bring us results.”


A very fine brand of baloney, maybe, but one that’s beginning to rot nonetheless. The interrupt model worked fine when we had a captive audience sitting in front of TVs with no choice but to watch what we put in front of them. DVRs changed that by putting the kind of control people have on the Internet into the hands of TV viewers. Banner ads (and I use that term loosely to describe any kind of display advertising we place on pages: rich media, video, text, static, or whatever) use the exact same model, replacing the “take over your screen” model of TV advertising with the “we’re gonna put something here and make it wiggle so you notice it” model of most online advertising.

It’s like TV, but worse. When you watch a TV spot, you know you’ll get your show back when it’s over. When you click a banner, you’re off to the great unknown, especially since using a browser’s back button has become so iffy.

Now, I’m not saying banners don’t work (I’m not opening that can of worms). But I am saying the idea that just because there are a lot of people to potentially put an intrusive message in front of doesn’t automatically translate into results. “But wait!” you may be saying, “What about contextual advertising? What about search?”

Ah! This is where things get interesting. Some models are working with consumers and their interests instead of against them. Contextual advertising works by linking the ad to the content at the “ah-ha!” moment a consumer may have when reading something related to the advertising. The ads don’t work as well as search because reading and searching for a product aren’t necessarily linked, but they do work better than just jamming an ad in front of someone’s face.

Search advertising’s success stems from the fact it inserts itself into consumers’ attention stream when they’re actually searching for what you sell. Sure, they may not be ready to buy and may be searching for general information, but they’re still indicating an interest in the topic. The CPC (define) model makes this form of advertising even more effective because marketers only pay when someone positively indicates an interest.

You get results. It’s a no-brainer.

What’s this got to do with social-networking advertising? Everything. Search marketing works because it understands search’s essential nature: people looking for stuff. Where social networking advertising (at least the passive model that uses banners or, in many cases, contextual advertising) falls down is it fails to recognize the essential nature of social networking. People come to hang out with other people. Anything that gets in the way ruins the experience and will be avoided.

This is why widgets have been getting so much play lately: they don’t intrude on the user experience. Yeah, they’re branded. Yeah, they’re obviously a product of crass commercialism, but when done well they enhance rather than detract from the experience. They’re something to share within a social network, not something to detract you from it. They can become part of the conversation you’re having with friends and acquaintances, not an interruption of that conversation.

Are widgets the answer to how advertising can work in social networking? Not at all, but they’re a beginning. The answer will become apparent when we think outside of the ol’ display advertising box and start to imagine ways we can work with the essential nature of social networking, rather than against it. How can we join communities of interest in an authentically helpful way? How can we give consumers the tools to facilitate their conversations about our products or services (conversations they’re going to have anyway, with our without our help)? How can we help connect them to get help, advice, or suggestions from others (Dave Evans has a few good ideas)? How can we make it easier for true believers and brand fans to do the selling for us (or help recruit new fans)? How can we work with what’s going on rather than against it?

Getting there won’t be easy, especially when we’re all faced with clients and budgets that are mired in the old way of thinking. Where’s the money come from? PR? The ad budget? The Web budget? Who’s in charge? How can we “control” the brand when it’s opened up to…shudder…the masses? (That’s sarcasm, folks.) How do we measure this stuff? How do we define success?

There’s obviously a lot to work out. But we don’t have any choice. Either we face the new world with new thinking, or we don’t and suffer the consequences. Time to choose.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.