“All Human Life is There” – the words that once ran over the masthead of the News of the World describe social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Bebo even better.
Lots of attention has been given over the past few weeks (in what seems to have been a bit of a slow period for news) to the pitfalls of advertising in these sites. Most has focused on whether such activity is safe for advertisers (who might end up next to distasteful content) – but a much bigger question is whether it’s worth it in the first place.
When an advertiser was spotted recently appearing next to a British National Party group on Facebook, a small journalistic feeding frenzy ensued with commentators competing for the holier-than-thou spot.
But most of the sites were already addressing the issue. MySpace had in place a PG rating for profiles on their site which advertisers could select to avoid appearing next to inappropriate content. Bebo don’t run advertising on users’ profile pages, so it’s unlikely to be an issue, and Facebook quickly rushed out a fix, allowing advertisers to exclude advertising from running on groups (rather than individual people’s pages) which was the source of the problem on their site.
So it all looks like job done. Social networks can keep on raking in the money, and advertisers can sleep soundly at night knowing they’re not appearing next to material the Daily Mail would get upset about.
Except it doesn’t work like this.
A huge chunk of the advertising running on these sites is bought through ad networks – sales houses that aggreggate together billions of impressions from thousands of sites and sell them on cheap to agencies.
Much of this inventory is ‘blind’ – the agency doesn’t know where the ads are going to appear – and it’s commonly used as a way of bringing down the average cost of a media schedule so it doesn’t look too daunting.
But it’s much harder to apply controls over content when buying media this way, and the low price reflects the fact that environment isn’t really a primary consideration.
Because whether you buy advertising on social networks directly or indirectly, the chances are, it’s cheap.
And it’s cheap for two reasons.
First, there’s absolutely boatloads of it. Social networking is one of the most popular online activities in the UK, and it generates huge quantities of audience. Second, it generally doesn’t work very well.
People who go to these sites are highly engaged with the content, and not in a consumer mindset. Forrester’s new report “Marketing on Social Networking Sites” is spot on when it says advertisers should “ditch the marketing tactics – this is about building trusted relationships.”
Advertisers have already spotted this, and offset poor response rates with low cost per thousands for the media. Whilst few have moved on and created the imaginative and engaging marketing programmes that Forrester call for, they’re filling their boots with cheap banner ads.
The argument about appearing next to distasteful content is an old one, and rests partly on whether audiences consider there to be an implied endorsement by the advertiser of that content. Marketers have fallen into three camps – the ‘get me out of here’, the ‘consumers are smart enough to make the distinction’ and the ‘don’t care just make it cheap’. There’s no right answer – each of these positions reflects the needs of different brands and the views of their stewards.
What we have to remember here though is that we’re in a different sort of media environment. Here, all the content is made by real people, not journalists or publishers. So it’s their media not ours, and it should be us that treads carefully when we place our wares there. But more than this, it reflects real life – warts and all. Social networking isn’t to be criticized for this, it’s to be celebrated for it.
All human life really is there, and it’s up to marketers to figure out how comfortable they are with that.