Social Media 2009 = Search 2002

We’re starting to hear the early whispers of a coming storm. A couple of sites are beginning to report something almost unthinkable just a year ago: Facebook sends more traffic their way than Google is, according to AdAge.com.

Gossip site Perez Hilton, for example gets 8.7 percent of its visitors from Facebook and 7.6 percent from Google. A very casual (and very anonymous) discussion with a search engine marketer reports seeing the same trend. Social media sites — including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and more — are beginning to emerge as serious drivers of traffic. It certainly makes sense: I know that my own use of social media frequently centers on links that I either send around or receive.

This trend hints at something much bigger. In particular, you can see this in the extreme interest with which marketers are beginning to look at social media. The Aberdeen Group, a consultancy, projects that marketers will increase spending in social media in the coming year. Social media is poised to become possibly the only growth sector in advertising in 2009.

In large part, this is due to the extraordinary economic downturn. Companies in all sectors are struggling — in many cases — just for survival. Advertising is going to be affected by that. If clients don’t have any money, they aren’t going hire too many agencies. But, they aren’t going to stop advertising. They are going to look for smart alternatives; they are going to look for advertising opportunities that are economical to create, tuned, and targeted, and require very little cost to traffic.

Sound familiar? If you’ve been in the interactive advertising business for at least the last five years, you’ll recognize the pitch for social media to be nearly identical to the ones we heard (and made) in 2002 for search. Search ads were fast and cheap to create and dirt cheap. (You didn’t even have to pay unless you got a click!) In the face of a bloated and barely effective display advertising market, search looked to be the best deal in town.

But what might this mean? If we believe that we are at the beginning of a cycle that we have seen at least once before, we should be able to make a few predictions about what is going to happen in social media, from an advertiser’s perspective.

Where is social media marketing going? Dust off the crystal ball. Here we go:

Social Media Agencies Will Proliferate and Be Hard to Sort Out

First, a whole raft of new agencies will pop up, offering all manners of services. Most will be legitimate, but there’s bound to be more than a few consultants and ultra-small agencies that offer services that may not be legitimate. Marketers will have to be smart about choosing a partner. In the early days of search it was a bit difficult to not only sort out the black hats from the white, but also the people who had just bought “Search Engines Marketing for the Complete Klutz” that morning on Amazon.

Eventually, a very small number of agencies will emerge that are recognized by clients, pundits, and the marketplace as real and we’ll see a bit of an oligarchy among them. They will capture the bulk of the agency spending. Eventually, some will be bought by either a big agency or a network.

Social Media Analytics and Structure Will Emerge

Right now, most companies operate their social media programs in a rather ad hoc fashion. But soon, we’ll see companies wanting to tighten up their social media practice. Today, there are precious few ways to capture real intelligence about your social media actions as a brand. Facebook offers fairly good analytics. Tools like bit.ly have emerged from the grassroots that let you track through your Twitter account. Expect these tools to get increased attention, not only from marketers, but also from the companies already in the business of measuring marketing return on investment.

Someone’s Going to Make a lot of Money

But it may not be the social media networks.

Here’s an interesting twist on the social-media-as-search idea: the big platform companies may not get rich. In search, it was very clear that tons of money — sometimes in $100 increments — would flow to Google and Yahoo. In fact, as Google continued to grow, we got to have another dot-com stock explosion. Google’s IPO catalyzed a rapid uptick in the stock market and gave investors a lot more confidence in the worth of tech stocks.

But what about social media? It’s not entirely clear how the social networking platforms will make money. It seems a near certainty that companies will generate value through social media and that their agencies will earn fees setting up pages and profiles. But where do the platforms fit in? Are they going to be able to offer the same kind of easy, turnkey, dirt-cheap, monetized channels that search did?

Right now, it is anyone’s guess. No one had to convince anyone of the deep value of Google. It was immediately apparent. But with social media, the value that the platforms can capture is still a bit out of reach.

So, social media will grow like mad in 2009, even while other sectors suffer. But exactly who is going to be the beneficiary of that spending remains, unfortunately, hidden inside that crystal ball.

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