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Square Peg, No Hole
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Advertising on Social Platforms Fills No Consumer Need

There’s been lots of talk this year about using advertising to “monetize” social media tech like Facebook and Twitter. I want to go out on a limb and suggest that the idea is a deal with the Devil, at best, because it misses (and misuses) the point of the media.

Social media aren’t commercial media, by definition. It's not why they exist, how they function, or what they promise. And as soon as brands succeed in negating these facts and commercializing specific social tools, people will abandon them for other media that haven’t been crapped out yet.

I know it’s hard to talk about. Definitions are broad and often squishy, so the measurements of what goes on there are varied and sometimes incomprehensible. What isn't a social medium, come to think of it? So many analyses of social tools consider the phenomena primarily technological and exclusively modern, thereby missing a deeper understanding of the social behaviors that have been with humanity since the beginning of recorded history.

But they’re just not commerciaI; the mechanism of contributing doesn’t need commercial content other than as one of many inputs -- conversations are predominantly about brands and not with them, if they reference brands at all (and contrary to the happyspeak that sells social tools to corporate clients) -- and the greater the commercial content, the less likely the conversations will have any credibility or utility, which utterly blows up their promise.

Nobody misses ads when they're on Facebook or Twitter, and no amount of targeting or other fine-tuning commercial messages changes this fact. Users haven’t grown up with advertising as a necessary evil the way we of the broadcast generation were taught to endure its frequent interruptions. Nevertheless, the presumption behind almost every monetization plan is that marketers can figure out how to put ads where they’re not needed, weren’t requested, and that doing so will do anything other than sully the very experiences they’re hoping to exploit.

Curious about the effect ads have on social media platforms? Just ask MySpace. Remember back when people used it? That was before Newscorp's genius monetization plan turned it into an ad crapatorium. How are sponsored tweets any better, or Facebook ads targeted to your profiled interests or surfing behavior? That's about as intrusively dumb as leaking your personal details through an app er, well, yeah.

We should know by now that ads in or around conversations on technology platforms are about as natural as putting up billboards around peoples’ kitchen tables, or gluing ads to consumers' foreheads.

Social media give businesses tremendously detailed visibility into places they’re not supposed to be, at least not directly. An ad on a Facebook or Twitter home page might claim eyeballs, but it can’t claim to be part of any engaging experience. It's not as bad as jamming a square peg into a round hole. It's worse, because there's no hole.

Why are we still talking about advertising and social media in late 2010? Two reasons, I think:

  • First, advertisers don't know what else to do. Consumers have run away from the media consumption tools in which advertising thrived for a few generations, and brands don't know how to reach them.
     
  • Second, there's a very active, talented lobby selling the up-is-the-new-down logic that preys on buyers haunted by the first point. The fact that there's no good, standardized way to measure what happens (or a solid rationale for why it should matter) makes it easier to spend money hoping your worst fears aren't anything to worry about...instead of facing and overcoming them.

What could we talk about instead? I'm still waiting for the real conversation about conversation, which'll involve corporate and vendor types far beyond the marketers and their agencies (and the marketing brainstrusts at consulting firms). My bet is that they'll look at:

  • Doing more things that drive social media conversations. Instead of trying to commercialize the process of conversation, why not do a better job of conducting business that spins off more facts and figures worthy of conversation? Why don't big brands do things that should be shared every day, or every hour? This would be an operations strategy, not something from marketing.
     
  • Doing smarter things to drive conversations. Imagine if every brand today stopping coming up with silly, entertaining nonsense that's intended to waste consumers time and instead dedicated that money (and time) to doing things that had innate, shareable value? "Funny" is not a brand attribute, and even the most-celebrated social marketing campaigns have the half-life of a gnat.
     
  • Actually conversing. Getting people to click on things that don't really matter is almost as dumb as asking for their opinions on things they arguably shouldn't be asked about (or not really meaning to ask for their opinions but rather providing the simulacra of inquiry). Few brands have figured out what topics are 1) reasonable, and 2) necessary for consumer conversation. It's a giant opportunity.

Ultimately, I wonder if the opportunity for brands exists before and after social media conversations, not within them. And why should they care whether or not there's a way to monetize the social tools themelves? Facebook and Twitter will eventually yield to other startups and other technologies; the one constant is conversation. A smart corporate strategy would be to address this reality with operational plans that will take into account any and every social invention coming down the road.

Added: 21st October 2010

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