Thoughts 17.09.12

Social networks want entertainers, not advertisers

Following on from our thought piece about whether brands should be behaving in a more human context, and as Facebook gears up to monetise its user base even further, David Howard suggests how brands can take advantage of social media platforms by entertaining users rather than advertising to them.

Another week, another public condemnation of Facebook. Whether for its tanking share price or its latest attempt to monetise a massive and data-rich user base, Facebook is being slammed as never before.

The reason for this is simple: we all need Facebook a bit too much. It’s a tech beacon in a post-industrial recessionary gloom, and our expectations of it are ratcheted so high they fail and disappoint at every additional turn. People need Facebook to connect with other people – nearly one billion of them interconnected and curating their own life stories through a platform designed, initially at least, explicitly for that purpose. Advertisers need it because beneath this mass reach is an even richer prize of personal data and behavioural information. And, since its fiasco of an IPO, investors need it, too – to start growing revenues, and quick.

Restless shareholders, humiliated by their part in the hubris surrounding Facebook’s initial valuation, want Facebook rapidly to unlock its revenue potential. They are pushing the company to think and behave more like a media owner and less like a social network; every passing ‘sponsored stories’ or ‘sponsored search’ revenue generator conjured up by Facebook casts its users not as customers, but as currency.

The inconvenient truth, for advertisers and investors, is that social networks serve a substantively different purpose in their users’ lives than do other online or offline media, and that attitudes toward advertising within them vary accordingly. One recent study to expose the difference – and many have gone before – is the IAB/Valueclick ‘Consumers & Online Privacy 2012’ study. It found that while 52% of the public are happy to see advertising online generally, the percentage dips to a low of 37% when it comes to advertising on social networking sites – and that from a survey that goes out of its way to frame advertising in the best possible light to survey respondents.

As an industry, we are guilty of studiously and repeatedly ignoring the fact that the public hardly welcome us with open arms into their social media spaces. Instead, we clutch at a couple of insubstantial straws: that Facebook and social media generally can somehow manage to walk the fine line between monetising and aggravating their audiences, and that by ‘being more human’ brands can carve out a place in what are pure human-to-human platforms. Access by subterfuge is bound to fail. The public accepts advertising in TV, press and even online because they understand that it finances quality editorial content. A primary reason that people reject brands in social media is that the advertising-for-content ‘contract’ is less clear cut in an environment where most of the content is being created by the users themselves.

The appropriate way for a brand to present itself in social media today is not by attempting to appear more human, but by adding the kind of value that humans, individually or collectively, cannot. A brand, behaving as a brand, can unlock budgets, harness resource and creativity and ultimately deliver the highest quality content to improve the experience of social media users. Brands such as Starbucks, Coke, and Red Bull understand that if they are to be in social media at all, then ‘light-touch’ is not good practice. They create the highest quality shareable content and use it across platforms, rather than spreading themselves thinly across a multitude of platforms with little weight, substance or solid reason for being there. Sharable content can originate in any form, and if the content is powerful, it can transfer across platforms. What becomes viral on Youtube, gets retweeted on Twitter, liked on Facebook, or repinned on Pinterest. Crucially, the brands that have the most success with social media are those that behave as entertainers rather than advertisers – and as a result carve out a space within social media that outwardly appear closed to them.

This article was published at The Wall. Download a PDF of the article at