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Which social media ads are right for you?

Ian Swanson
Which social media ads are right for you? Ian Swanson

A recent highlights the debate surrounding ad buys on social networks.   

It's true that "these mediums were developed for communicating, not advertising," a quote the article attributes to Ted McConnell, Procter & Gamble's GM of interactive marketing and innovation.

But should the personal nature of social networks serve as a "Keep Out" sign for advertisers in general? Consumers themselves say "no." 

Jennifer Bartlett, who co-authored, is business development manager at Sometrics.

Four out of 10 consumers have made a purchase based on advertising they saw on a social media site, while 76 percent welcome advertising on social networks, according to a report published by Razorfish in October.

The 2008 Cone Business in Social Media Study found that 85 percent of Americans who use social media believe a company should not only be present on social sites, but also should interact with its consumers via social media.

Obviously, there are several ways to do this without traditional advertising -- assign employees to actively participate in certain networks, be active bloggers and readers of other related blogs, and more.

But beyond those options, many advertisers are confused about how to allocate ad spend across social networking sites in a way that:

  • Takes into account the personal nature of the medium

  • Is true to the brand

  • Will generate positive ROI

Many don't know what ad units are available, and how to decide which is best for them. 

To address these common questions, let's take a look at advertising options in the social space. 

Banner ads: The ad rates for display ads on social networks are affordable -- generally some of the lowest around. But don't let that fool you into thinking the quality of your audience reach is any less than elsewhere. In fact, the social web provides the ability to target like no other medium -- by demographics, interests, and even social actions. There's a lot of discussion and debate about the value of banner ads within social networks, but we've found they almost always lift brand awareness.

Video ads: By definition, these rich media ads are more engaging than display ads, and they're increasingly common within the social web. But it's important to get beyond the TV mindset -- don't just plop an ad created for television into the social space (especially not a 30-second ad). That's what too many advertisers have done, ignoring some of the unique advantages to being online (like the ability to send an interested consumer directly to your website or a particular landing page, for starters).

Video ads obviously are more expensive to produce and to place, but if done right can have benefits well beyond brand awareness and initial direct response. Keep reading for more on this. 

Direct response (DR): Consumers are already more engaged with the social medium itself, compared with any other media, like TV, radio, print, or even Web 1.0. Think about it: People are playing games, sending messages, reading blog posts, pinging their Facebook friends, commenting on someone else's photo, and the list goes on. They're typing, conversing, reacting, creating -- around the clock. They're engaged.

With the right message and the right incentive, advertisers can take advantage of this level of attention to achieve high response rates among hyper-targeted audiences.

A new element of social DR borrows from the principle of incentives that we're so familiar with offline. (Who among us hasn't given a company a name and address for a chance to win a dream vacation?) 

Developers offer items of value in their applications or websites -- game points, gold for virtual pets, or a free gift -- in exchange for taking a certain action. Advertisers can use those actions to drive a particular response -- get people to visit a website, or to watch a video and pass it to a friend, etc. Or, in a new twist, advertisers can use those actions to gain valuable intelligence about brand perception: Ask consumers to watch a video ad and answer some questions about it. Couple those results with user demographics like age, location, and gender, along with interests and social actions.

The result: Gain a hefty amount of actionable intelligence that you can use to increase ROI for your advertising across the board -- online and offline.    

Branded applications: Movie website Flixster.com offers a Facebook application that allows users to compare their taste in movies with their friends. Starbucks' Facebook app lets users highlight their favorite drink on their profile page and send virtual drinks to friends. 

Creating a fun application reinforces your brand with existing customers and makes it easy for them to share their enthusiasm for your products with others. In fact, the sharing part -- the social network version of word-of-mouth -- happens more proactively than it would offline, since communities like Facebook automatically inform a member's friends when he or she adds a new application.

Brand fan pages or groups: These are free, and, as such, don't exactly fall into the category of the list of available ad units for purchase. But after talking about branded applications above, it's hard not to mention the value of a fan page or group in a social community. According to a recent study by marketing agency Rosetta, 59 percent of 100 leading retailers currently have a fan page on Facebook. Often these are created by customers or employees -- the "Kraft Macaroni & Cheese" page on Facebook has more than 16,000 fans while the "I LUV Southwest Airlines!" group has 1,150 members. As with the applications, each time someone becomes a fan or joins the group, that message is proactively broadcast to everyone in that person's network. The pages themselves provide a great place to broadcast videos and to create engagement and conversation with and among customers.

Branded virtual goods/gifts: Lightspeed Venture Partners estimates that sales of virtual gifts within Facebook now reach about $35 million per year. In addition, virtual worlds like Second Life, MoiPal, and many others allow users to interact with each other online just as they would in real life -- including buying goods and services. Advertisers can sell branded items -- a band t-shirt, for example, for a user's avatar to wear within the virtual world. It's another way to allow consumers to become brand advocates, and to achieve powerful peer-to-peer influence. 

Social SEO: Once you've invested in a social presence -- either with a branded app or a profile for your company -- you'll want to make sure you can be found. Here's where the "old" web merges with the new: Search engine optimization within social networks is becoming increasingly popular among advertisers who want to be at the top of the list for searches conducted within Facebook, MySpace, and other sites.   

There are many ways to interact with consumers on social networks, and a good ad campaign will include a healthy mix. Don't fret if you're not sure where to start. Dip your toes in with something relatively easy, study the wealth of analytics data available to social advertisers, and optimize and grow your reach from there.
You'll soon find you have a deep understanding of what your potential customers are doing within social networking websites, what they think of your brand, and how to reach out to them in a way that connects.

Ian Swanson is co-founder and CEO of Sometrics. Jennifer Bartlett is business development manager.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Tony Wood

2009, March 04

I agree that being present in the social space is a step in the right direction. However, executing tactics like banner ads and video ads merely replicate old thinking in this new medium. Your describing a digital version of display advertising. We know that a majority of consumers ignore such messages. The beauty of the social space is to carry a conversation.

Commenter: Adam Kleinberg

2009, March 02

Was disappointed this article didn't address many of the unique opportunities available in social networks—sponsored questions in LinkedIn, Social Ads and Sponsored Stories in Facebook—and dig into what works and what doesn't.

Commenter: Michael O'Brien

2009, March 01

While I find your article about online advertising interesting, I cannot agree with everything that you wrote. As a consumer, I do not want to be bombarded with ads with I am on my "social" networking sites. All methods of communication already flooded with advertising. I say busineses should be using sites like Biz Ad Splash and LinkIn, and leave the social sites for socializing not advertising