Online advertisers must accept risk of user-generated content

The control brands have over traditional media is not available online – no matter what safeguards social networking sites try to introduce.

The fuss over ads appearing next to inappropriate content online just won’t go away, and once again it’s user-generated content that’s causing the problems.

This month it’s been Facebook in the spotlight, after Marketing Week’s sister title New Media Age alerted brands including First Direct, Capital One and Vodafone to the fact that their ads were appearing on the British National Party’s group page on the social networking site. All three subsequently pulled the ads, and were followed by others, including the COI.

In this case the problem arose because Facebook didn’t allow advertisers to choose where their ads appeared – they were simply rotated across the site. But the bigger issue is that the network, and others like it, is effectively a victim of its own success.

It’s true that in the world of traditional print media, brands for the most part can’t control the content next to which their ads appear, and certainly most editorial departments would be horrified by the suggestion that they could. But where media is scarce, it’s relatively simple to monitor its content, and although mistakes happen, they are relatively infrequent.

By contrast, Facebook alone has about 30 million users and an estimated 100,000 new ones are joining every day. And those users are updating their pages constantly – 6 million photos are uploaded to the site every day. Monitoring that amount of content is all but impossible. Certainly some people in the media industry have taken a fairly robust view of the recent furore, suggesting that advertisers on social networking sites who claim to be surprised by finding their ads next to content they consider inappropriate are either naive or ill-informed. Social networks, they argue, are inherently risky and brands that advertise on them need to be aware of the potential problems.

So advertisers seem to find themselves faced with a choice. Do they ignore the social networking phenomenon, and stick to advertising in less risky environments, despite the huge audiences sites like Facebook attract? Or do they continue to advertise on these sites, and assume that their audience is media-savvy enough to understand that the presence of an ad next to a piece of content doesn’t necessarily mean the advertiser endorses that content?
In fact that choice is already being eased as media owners and advertisers recognise each other’s interests

Facebook last week uprated its system to allow UK advertisers to opt out of appearing next to groups, an update that will be rolled out internationally in the coming months. And going forward it seems certain that the two sides will work together to try to develop solutions that will allow advertisers to reach the audiences they want and that the site owners can attract.

What’s less clear is how such solutions might work. The technology to analyse Web pages for context as well as content is still in its infancy, which leaves manual solutions to try to cope with a huge and rapidly growing quantity of content. Any short-term measures are likely to focus on advertisers being given greater control over the specific pages they wish to avoid, coupled with the sort of notice-and-take-down approach adopted by ISPs, under which an advertiser complaint would result in ads being removed from individual pages, rather than the entire site.
Other sites are looking at different safeguards. Social networking site Bebo, which has an audience of predominantly older teenagers, doesn’t allow advertising on users’ pages, which reduces the risks, while many other site operators cite the value of the user community in monitoring and reporting content they feel is not suitable.

Set against all of this is the question of how important advertising on social networks will be going forward. In this column last month, I argued that the real value of social networks to brands is in the way they allow conversations among their customers and potential customers to be monitored and influenced. Traditional advertising will continue to play a part, but brands and agencies are increasingly discovering that getting the right message to the key influencers within any online community is a far more powerful way to use this particular medium.

But, this approach does not necessarily solve the problem of where advertising messages appear. The key community figure who endorses your brand may have other views that you may find less acceptable. And, as General Motors found out with its campaign last year to allow users to create their own ads for its Chevrolet Tahoe SUV, some members of the public will play rough.

It seems to me that in this, as in many other areas, advertisers are going to have to accept the levels of control they are used to are simply not available. The approach in the future will have to be both more pragmatic and more trusting, aiming to anticipate the worst problems and mitigate anything unforeseen by responding honestly and treating the public with respect.

Michael Nutley is editor-in-chief
of New Media Age

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