In the world of social media, you don’t buy your media, you earn it. This was the idea that Michael Bayler, head of The Rights Marketing Company, told me his company had come up with recently, and it’s as neat a summation of the situation as you could wish for.
There are still conflicting views over the acceptability of advertising on social media sites, although the thinking has become more nuanced. It used to be that the Web purists believed that users would desert any social network that carried advertising, while the networks themselves believed that, as brands are part of the way we navigate the world, they would be as acceptable online as they are off.
Two recent pieces of research show how this polarity has become blurred. In May, a survey of UK adults carried out for Marketing Week’s sister titles New Media Age and Brand Strategy by YouGov showed that 49% of social network users didn’t like ads appearing next to their personal social network profiles. However another survey, carried out by Q Research into 11to 20-year-olds, found that two-thirds thought that having advertising on their profile pages was a good idea. Those most opposed to the idea were the 16% of users who visited their networks once a day or more. The discrepancy between these figures may be explained by the age difference between the two samples, or just that attitudes are not yet fully formed. But the Q Research also threw up another interesting finding; of those who approved of advertising on their profile pages, the majority felt that it should be for products and services that the profile owner liked or recommended.
In other words, we’re back to the idea of control. Speaking at Marketing Week’s and NMA’s recent Online Marketing 07 show, writer and blogger Russell Davis rubbished the idea that consumers are taking control of marketing, claiming instead that what they were saying was that they “couldn’t be arsed with marketing”. I’d qualify that by suggesting that what people are reacting against is bad marketing – untargeted, irrelevant marketing that delivers them nothing of value – and that the control they’re exerting is over their media consumption, allowing them to opt out of it.
But clearly people still engage with products and services. They discuss them, they recommend them, they warn against them. And one of the effects of the rise of social media is that these conversations spread faster and more widely than ever before.
This is where viral marketing comes in, but it’s not just a matter of making video ads that wouldn’t normally get past the ASA and hoping bored teenagers and office workers will pass them on to their mates. It’s a question of getting people talking about your product or service in a positive way; hence the remark made by internet pioneer Esther Dyson at a conference last winter that if she were starting up an advertising agency now, she’d staff it with PR people.
This is also why so many other speakers at Online Marketing 07 were adamant that every company should be looking at social media, even those that feel they’re insufficiently cool or youth-focused to benefit from involvement in social networking sites. If you sell insurance, for example, there will be people blogging about their experience with your company, discussing it in chatrooms, or posting about it on review sites. You may choose not to get involved in those conversations, but you should at least make sure you know about what’s being said in them.
Going one step further, this is what The Rights Marketing Company is getting at. If companies want to reach consumers through social media, they won’t do so by buying banner ads, or even rich media. They’ll do so by talking to key influencers and by allowing people to use branding collateral the way they choose.
Most crucially, they also have to realise that online, there is nowhere to hide. So they need to try to ensure that every experience the customer has with their company is a good one, because those experiences will make their way into the social media space and become part of the continuing conversation about the company. And we all know that bad news travels further and faster than good.
This in turn taps into a growing discussion about brands themselves. There is an increasing body of opinion that holds brands, which function at base as an assurance about the nature and quality of a product or service, are losing their lustre, and that what matters is the quality of the product or service itself. Catastrophe, as the manufacturers of Kryptonite bicycle locks discovered, is just a flawed product and a viral video away.
Michael Nutley is editor-in-chief of New Media Age