The Evolution of Social Media Advertising

When paid advertising opportunities first opened up years ago on social networks, many brands and agencies tried it. Usually, by the performance standards we typically applied, it failed.

In those early efforts, we found users were engaged with their friends and friend content and were not in the least bit interested in ads. Post-impression activity was equally dismal. Over time, new offerings have emerged but, more importantly, we have all come to better understand the mindset and use patterns in social media and have adjusted the goals of paid placements within social environments to better match those of the audience. Still, our main focus became engagement strategies more in line with the environment and user expectations while social advertising lingered on the fringes with an occasional, small budget component.

While we were waiting for new and better ways to reach social media users with paid media, the social networks both evolved significantly and grew significantly. People now spend more time on Facebook than on Google, look to Twitter for real-time news and recommendations, and generally make their social networks the hub of their online existence. Considering the huge and growing volume of page views and, therefore, possible ad impressions available in social environments, the paid media opportunities simply had to reassert themselves. We’ve seen ad networks like Lotame and others successfully serve and optimize targeted ads within social media. Facebook offered self-serve ads and has partnered with a number of ad sellers, and even Twitter has finally gotten into the ad game.

Changes in the Social Environment Create New Opportunities

Some of the changes recently announced at Facebook’s f8 conference will have a dramatic effect on Facebook’s impact for both marketers and users. Facebook’s new open API will surely encourage and reward developers to further enhance Facebook offerings and make it even more important to users. Openness begets value which begets growth; especially in social media. The availability of easy new social plug-ins will motivate site owners large and small to incorporate Facebook functionality into their sites and drive interactions to their Facebook Pages.

Marketers now share critical digital territory with and across social environments and regularly debate whether their assets and interactions should be housed on their brand sites, microsites, or on Facebook. Often, Facebook wins, not only because that is where the audience resides, but because of the built-in functionality that supports the very kinds of interactions that marketers hope to motivate. As Facebook expands and new offerings emerge from the collective, innovative minds of thousands of developers, this can only get stronger. Plus, new data sharing policies will allow third-party sites to capture, keep, and use Facebook information – opening up new opportunities, likely launching new companies and new offerings if they can successfully navigate the inherent privacy issues. Overall, the future of Facebook and, to a lesser extent, other social environments, appears to favor continued growth in both size and influence.

Marketers Respond

Marketers have learned how to participate effectively in social media by helping to facilitate connections online and offer entertainment, information, or other benefits relevant and valued by their target audiences. They have finally (for the most part) stopped shouting ad messaging through social media but still crave the ability to directly communicate with a targeted group within social media environments. The recent Nielsen study validated in strong terms the usefulness of the social graph in promoting significant improvements in ad recall, awareness, and purchase intent. The key appears to be using social engagement ads to unveil users’ friends who have interacted with the brand by friending, liking, or some other mechanism in an implied endorsement. If it’s not a big surprise that marketers have to think differently about social media advertising and approach it differently, then it shouldn’t be surprising that the ad seller market is responding with new social media ad offerings.

Ad Sellers Respond

I recently had a conversation with Dave Williams, CEO and co-founder of BLiNQ Media. Earlier in his career, Dave co-founded 360i, a leading search marketing firm, and so approached this new display venture with the goal to combine the strengths of search marketing with the audience and tremendous profile data available in social media. BLiNQ Media has forged a strong partnership with Facebook as one of its preferred partners and works with other social networks as well. It delivers deep data-driven, profile-targeted ads using an auction-based inventory system. This allows marketers to buy on a CPSA (cost per social action) basis that limits the risk. BLiNQ ads often include the social engagement element that includes friends’ endorsements and drives results measured in fanning events, application completions, downloads, or other highly measurable conversions usually within the Facebook environment but off as well.

This effort, along with numerous others, combines an intriguing blend of various trends in online media buying, now including performance-based buying and profile-driven optimization with the efficiency of ad exchanges. We’ll be watching as these evolve.

The current opportunities in social media advertising look different from the early efforts and thankfully perform better, but perhaps the biggest change, the real evolution is the way we understand messaging in this environment and the expectations we have for this channel. So, is my first thought in social media paid ads? No, and it never will be. But it is nice to know that there are targeted, reliable, effective options in paid media to reach consumers in their media of choice.

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