Route to online engagement littered with many dead ends

Forget social networking sites, the best way advertisers can engage with their audience is via community-based advice sharing websites

What are marketers to make of the conflicting signals surrounding social media? According to a new IPA/Future Foundation report out this week*, social networking is sparking a “revolution” that’s “empowering the consumer” and “transforming society”.

Social networking and its related paraphernalia, including blogs, messaging boards, user-generated online videos, wikis plus applications such as pop-up blockers on browsers which can prevent display advertising getting through, are “turning the tables on convention and putting the consumer in control”, says the report.

The implications for brands and advertising agencies are far-reaching. “Brands,” the report warns, “have no right to be in this space at all. Instead they have to earn the right via permission-based advertising, which requires a fundamental shift in mindset… But the majority of agencies aren’t getting it.”

“As consumers increasingly mediate messages between brands and other consumers in the social media arena, the power and influence of paid-for advertising could diminish,” the report continues.

But what evidence do we have that such a sea-change is really underway? Social media has been around for a while, yet it remains, as the report points out, “a young person’s game” and social networking giants such as MySpace and Facebook are still struggling to make money. Last year, Facebook earned $5 (£3.68) of revenue per user – that’s $1 (73p) of revenue for every ten hours of use per user. So much for “monetisation”.

Most marketers are also struggling to make this environment work for them. Half of all sponsored groups on Web 2.0 sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace have fewer than 1,000 members across Europe. And 99% of branded widgets are not used, some with just five daily active users, while the average blog is now read by just one person. So much for “engagement”.

So is it just all hype? No, it’s not. The problem with reports like these is not the assumptions they challenge but the assumptions they fail to challenge. When push comes to shove, for example, agencies assume that consumers don’t want their brand messages, which have to be smuggled in, hidden within stuff they do want (entertainment) or dressed up as if it were entertainment (engagement). Even so, the more consumers are in control, the harder it is to smuggle these messages – which is why the report argues the new environment “calls for a more subtle, softer, drip-feed approach”. Given such an assumption every eyeball represents an advertising opportunity; any media can deliver these eyeballs, and all these eyeballs are equally predisposed to being influenced by ads.

What this ignores is consumer purpose. At the risk of being overly simplistic, all marketers need to know about MySpace and Facebook is the following sentence from the IPA report/ “The main social network behaviour by far, for all ages, is socialising, keeping in contact with friends, and making friends.” People do not use these services to go shopping or think about shopping. That is why, like pubs, social networking sites will never – repeat, never – become critical advertising media.

Human brains
You might respond by saying that people don’t watch TV to shop or think about shopping, yet TV advertising can be very effective. That’s another assumption that needs challenging. TV advertising is often very effective at making people aware of things. That’s largely because of the way human brains work. Once you have been made aware of something you cannot decide to make yourself unaware of it. So, when it comes to generating awareness, TV advertising puts the advertiser in control.

But TV advertising cannot make you go on to consider something in depth and it cannot dictate the outcome of these considerations. Once we move from “awareness” to “consideration” control moves from the advertiser to the consumer, which is why it’s so much easier to measure advertising effectiveness in terms of awareness than it is sales.

There is nothing new here. It has always been thus. But now consider an alternative hypothesis which suggests that, in fact, consumers genuinely do want brand and product information if it is available at the right time and the right place in the right form, and if it helps them pursue their own agenda which is, basically, to make better decisions more easily. This is not about brand awareness, it is about enhancing the consideration phase from the consumer’s perspective of value.

Here, things are changing rapidly. In their problem-solving/go-to-market mode (as distinct to a socialising or being entertained mode) consumers are now being offered new forms of help such as online search, product review sites, price comparison sites and online community-based advice sharing sites (which use social media for focused information exchange, as distinct from socialising).

These forms of “consumer shopping service” are enabling new, richer means of exchanging purchasing-related information (both peer-to-peer and company/customer) away from both traditional and social media. They are effectively a new channel, and it is steadily gaining critical mass. Thus, moneysavingexpert.com now has 6 million unique visitors a month, with 3 million signed up to receive its weekly money saving tips email newsletter. Indeed, 20% of mothers now regularly use price comparison sites when considering purchases.

The IPA Report is right to stress the revolutionary implications of recent developments, it has just picked the wrong candidate to focus on. Agencies do indeed need to make some strategic decisions. If social media will always be an advertising damp-squib while traditional media’s share of attention declines, what are the options? Option A is to specialise in generating awareness for clients’ brands. Option B is to keep on generating awareness but to also help clients engage with consumers during the consideration stage as well.

For Option A, the best way forward is probably to forget social media (except for a few youth oriented, fashion or fad related brands and campaigns) and to focus on traditional media, tweaking the mix judiciously as audiences shift to the internet. This is what most agencies are doing.

For Option B, the best way forward is still to forget social media (with the same caveats as Option A) and to ask “how, when and where can we connect with consumers in ways that add value to them, not when they are socialising or being entertained, but when they are in problem-solving/purchase consideration mode?”This is indeed a new, strategic challenge, requiring fundamental innovation in channels, strategies, metrics and more. It’s also a huge opportunity for the agencies, and clients, that “get it”. 

*Social Media Futures: The future of advertising and agencies in a networked society

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