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Monday, January 4, 2010

The Perils of Ad-Supported Social Media

Brought to you by David Teitler

People who live in the tropics like to say, "If you don't like the weather, wait 10 minutes." This is not dissimilar to the media business, where the "paradigms" have been shifting at such a fevered pitch that even the rational professionals might be tempted to bolt for the exits.

Like it or not, we are now in the accountability business and seemingly damned to a life of forever being challenged to prove our worth or be ridiculed (or worse) as serving an unnecessary function.

To an extent, this aspect of our chosen profession rings true. No one needs advertising to survive. You can't buy a peck of page views or a gallon of gross impressions. Advertising is, and forever will be, a conduit through which products and services are communicated to the masses in bite-size chunks and surrounded by content consumers find entertaining or intellectually stimulating. At least, this has been the case up until now.

Today we find ourselves at a crossroads. Social media has inverted the pyramid and is brilliant in its simplicity. It's just "conversation," with a history dating back to cave men grunting at each other in either threatening or friendly tones. Social media is essentially a means by which affinity groups can find each other and babble for as long as other like-minded individuals will listen without being limited by proximity or time.

The growing ubiquity of social media weaving its way into the fabric of our society has traditional media and advertising executives both excited and horrified at where this all might lead. Content providers are nervous because affinity groups can now find each other without needing them to serve as a conduit. Marketers and advertisers are not sure how to react because of being trained to communicate in staccato tones with definitive starts and stops. Social media, on the other hand, is free to flow, meander, and evolve at its own pace.

Let's face it: What do "Coke is it," "The Ultimate Driving Machine," or "Just do it" mean in a vacuum anyway? But, given 30 seconds of sight, sound, and motion or a four-color page, magic can happen, worlds can be created, and products can be sold. But, setting these slogans free to be discussed as part of a conversation that evolves as long as those participating want without an omnipresent third party -- how cool is that?

Why not let the genie out of the bottle and let both media and the advertising that supports it be free to morph and flow anywhere they please? The promise of a personalized nirvana where each person can evolve their own world shaped to their needs and be changed at their slightest whim lies ahead. It almost sounds like a media Garden of Eden. But, as with the original biblical story, there is an apple (and possible serpent) that cannot be ignored.

As we all know, the true nature of the human condition will invariably come into play. Blogs cannot live by affinity groups alone. Eventually, someone will want coffee and doughnuts with their conversation and someone will be needed to provide them. Marketers are figuring out ways to almost imperceptibly insert themselves into the conversation. Many of the best examples of social media sponsorships to date are so subtle and nuanced that brand affinity supposedly takes place with the "sponsor" deep in the background or seemingly not there at all.

Contrast this to more traditional forms of display advertising that are downright refreshing in how they will punch a consumer in the nose and say, "BUY MY BRAND!" Not optimal perhaps, but at least you know it's there and what it is trying to communicate -- at least most of the time. Please don't take these comments as a treatise on whether social media is good or evil. I believe the ultimate answer is that everything in moderation has its benefits.

In the "old days," media consumption patterns were defined in "quintiles" -- the heaviest media consumers were the top 20 percent, down to the lowest 20 percent. Directionally, as an advertising-supported medium, I would contend that social media is best used in reaching light media consumers -- those on the fringe whose interests are too numerous and/or too intense to be heavy consumers of "mass media." This type of consumer used to be served by "niche" publications -- a market segment that will, to my mind, be most adversely affected by the rising tide of "social" as a mainstream media.

Leading marketers are diving into social media but need to tread lightly. "Going viral" can cut both ways. Once the genie is out of the bottle, the promise and the curse is that social media can take on a life of its own and, when it inflects to the negative, it can be exceedingly difficult to contain without significant collateral damage. Unless tight controls are in place from the beginning, the risks associated with ad-supported social media might end up outweighing the benefits.

Don't get me wrong, by all means experiment -- but be judicious and respectful. The most active companies in the social media space have standing committees with senior PR, marketing, and general counsel executives to monitor the "buzz" being created by their social media initiatives.

Social media shows promise to eventually play a huge role in the ad-supported ecosystem but, in its current forms, is like juggling nitroglycerin. There should be an ever-present "handle with care" label to remind us of the potentially considerable downside risk involved. For the time being at least, the inherent dangers will keep it from reaching its full potential.

On the bright side, if we continue to take a step-wise/iterative approach to learning how social media can be harnessed for the greater good, it shows promise to be seen by history as one of the primary ad-supported communication developments to come out of the first decade of the 21st century.

David Teitler is founder and CEO of BlackBox Media.

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