The Future of Media Buying: Facebook Edition

In keeping with this column’s occasional examination of online advertising opportunities that have yet to be fully realized, it’s time now to tackle that elephant of the social scene: Facebook.

Let’s first acknowledge that Facebook’s advertising business model as it currently stands is something astonishing to behold. Although the site has encountered some resistance with regard to its more unorthodox offerings, nobody can deny that Facebook has done some groundbreaking things by harnessing the power of CGM (define) and connecting consumers with advertisers through their peers.

This point is essential to Facebook advertisers. Marketers who consider Facebook for an ad buy recognize the importance of a consumer’s social circle not just to her life, but also to the purchasing decisions that she makes. Good old-fashioned word of mouth has long been known to influence everything from one’s opinion of a product or brand to one’s interest in seeing a new film or eating at a particular restaurant. Facebook’s “social ads” leverage the actions and interests of Facebook users for advertising purposes.

What Facebook has yet to offer that would really make us sit up and take notice would be the ability to connect with consumers through products that consumers themselves highlight on their profiles. Whereas we can piggyback on their actions by creating Social Ads (Facebook now refers to them as Social Actions) that accompany them — for example, “Jim bought tickets to see ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine'” — the potential exists for us to do the same with products that Facebook users already own.

One of Facebook’s most popular features has always been the ability to upload and share photos (Facebook is the largest photo-sharing site online), with videos also now gaining critical mass. These might be pictures of some friends drinking Corona beer on a beach, or a shot of a baby being fed mashed bananas while sitting in a Stokke brand high chair.

Currently, consumers have the ability to tag the people who appear in those photos and videos, identifying them by name so that others can easily locate shots of their Facebook friends. Theoretically they could also tag products, though this has yet to become a common practice because a list of products isn’t offered the same way that one’s list of Friends is. If Facebook promoted this practice and provided a lexicon of popular products and business names, consumers could choose to highlight the brands that play a role in their daily lives, and especially, that they would advocate to their peers. That Stokke high chair might be the single best baby purchase made by the user who snapped that photo. If so, there’s a good chance she’d voluntarily promote it among her friends by tagging it for all to see.

Once a product is tagged, Facebook might consider allowing the marketers of the brand to add a link (to an existing Facebook Page or external brand or product site) that is subject to the user’s approval. If she supports the brand and is eager to recruit other consumers to buy, she would accept the link. If not, she would have the option of rejecting it. Brands would have the option to reject the photo tag, too, if they felt the context or subject matter was inappropriate or distasteful.

Imagine the power of this type of word of mouth. It would be as if one Facebook user was sitting next to another flipping through a photo album over coffee and discussing the must-have products that pepper the shots. A product tag voluntarily placed by a consumer would represent a virtual thumbs-up that would be disseminated to her entire online social circle — people who probably respect her opinion and trust her recommendations.

As an advertising opportunity, this would create a platform for marketers to leverage the influence that some very desirable consumers have over their peers — the “Market Mavens,” for example, who are eager to pass along their excessive product knowledge to their friends and acquaintances. Not all consumers would be interested in promoting a brand in their photos or videos. But many — the same who post book reviews on Amazon and deter faceless forum users from using products they find to be sub-par — will do so happily in order to spread their positive associations and offer others the opportunity to enjoy the products as much as they do.

If they come to fruition, product tags in Facebook photos may become a social media monitoring nightmare that brands are too overextended to tackle. Or, they might become the most effective viral promotion yet.

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