Undoubtedly, as future digital marketers look back on the history of the web, the years where the internet wasn't socially enabled will be a tiny blip on the front end of a thriving social-enabled industry. Frankly, human beings are by nature social creatures, so this social media revolution was certain inevitable, if not predictable.
For marketers trying to take advantage of this emerging opportunity, the main focus has been on the owned and earned opportunities such as Facebook tabs, Twitter feeds, etc. Joseph Jaffe's Join the Conversation has framed the discussion perfectly as companies hire social practitioners to help them find ways to get closer with their customers, listen to what they say, and try to engage them in a dialogue.
Ultimately, the goal is to leverage owned content to build loyalists and then activate them to generate earned influencers through "likes," positive reviews, and shares of your message. This plan seems to be working out well, especially for bigger brands like Starbucks and Coca-Cola, which now get more visits to their Facebook pages than their websites.
But there's more to social media strategy than just owned and earned. There are plenty of paid opportunities as well. Unlike its cousins, paid social media has the huge advantage of being very scalable on demand. For smaller brands or even larger B2B brands that don't organically have a large social presence, paid social media can be a great avenue to achieve high reach and frequency goals against their target audiences in the social sphere. As well, what paid opportunities lack in perceived credibility is balanced by providing marketers total control over the placement and message. Anyone who's dabbled in social media knows that it can sometimes spin out of control -- as it did for Skittles.
The following are just some of the ways that marketers can engage in paid social media.
Social network advertising
Certainly one of the most popular paid social media tactics is to use the advertising products offered by social network sites to reach users on their platforms. Not only do some of these networks offer very robust self-service tools, but most of them also offer a very custom, managed service approach for advertisers willing to bring large budgets to the table.
Facebook's pay-per-click (PPC) offering is the leading self-service product for paid social media. In fact, Facebook ads now represent almost a quarter of all online display ads, beating out market share from internet stalwarts such as Yahoo and AOL. Modeled after paid search systems such as the highly successful Google AdWords platform, advertisers can create a Facebook PPC account in minutes and fund it with a credit card. It doesn't take much time at all to build campaigns, create short text ads, upload your logo, and start running your ads live. The best feature of all, though, is the advanced targeting that enables advertisers to reach Facebook users based on their profiles.
Some of the targeting options include:
- Likes and interests
- Education and workplace
- Facebook connections
- Relationship status
- Demographics such as age, gender, and location
As Facebook's ad sales division continues to ramp up to service the legions of hungry advertisers trying to capture their audiences, new and innovative ad units are starting to appear. For example, check out this premium ad unit for the movie "Inception," which includes information and links to an event, as well as an RSVP feature.
But Facebook is not only the game in town.
LinkedIn offers a similar self-service approach with a text-ads platform and incredible targeting options including by industry, seniority, geography, job function, etc.
Twitter has paid products such as:
- Promoted Tweets that appear at the top of search results
- Promoted Trends to start conversations
- Promoted Accounts that urge users to follow
YouTube has a very robust self-service platform in which marketers can upload a variety of ad formats targeted around the site. One of the more interesting opportunities is that advertisers can target specific videos individually in order to appear next to the most relevant content.
These sites are just continuing to evolve to meet the goals of marketers. Popular social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube have captive user groups that continue to grow and grow. They own these audiences, and there are plenty of interested advertisers. Certainly the future of this channel is huge, and paid advertising on social networks, although in its infancy now, is set to mature quickly.
Offered by various vendors, social targeting technology tracks a specific group of users (for example, your core audience) and then attempts to identify the online connections of these users (i.e., your friends and family). Once these connections are uncovered, media can be targeted to them via the same anonymous pixel technology that is currently being used to target online display ads.
Companies such as 33Across, Lotame, Media6Degrees, Rapleaf, and others each offer their own versions of this targeting. For example, Media6Degrees' product attempts to match the brands with their most engaged consumers based on its proprietary Social Signature methodology. Meanwhile, 33Across' SocialDNA system "helps marketers identify high-potential prospects who are socially connected to existing customers and brand loyalists."
I asked Eric Wheeler, CEO at 33Across and a well-known thought leader on this topic, about how his customers are thinking about paid social. "Earned and owned has been the primary social media focus for most brands thus far," he said. "Build a Facebook fan base, amass followers on Twitter, secure subscribers on YouTube -- all great ways to message to your existing and most loyal customer base.
"What is hard to accomplish with just this investment, however, is the ability to leverage those customer relationships and their social influence to reach your next customer," Wheeler added. "This is what social targeting enables. Imagine your Facebook fan base scaled by 30 times; your website visitors multiplying by the thousands. We find that once advertisers do dip into paid social, their investment in it scales along with their customer base."
Other companies, such as Clearspring and RadiumOne, have a twist on social targeting using technology to (anonymously) track what type of content users are sharing and who they're sharing too. Their bet is that people with whom you share are even more connected to you than someone on your Facebook friend list. From RadiumOne's website: "Do you know who your friends are? Are they really the 250 people you've listed as friends on a social network? Or is your circle of close personal connections actually much smaller? The fact is, a social network can be a bit like a giant address book, a way of keeping our contacts up-to-date. But the truly close -- and for marketers, valuable -- connections occur among people who are actively sharing their lives with each other."
As with all forms of targeting, there are effectiveness questions as well as privacy concerns with social targeting. However, if you're a marketer that's trying to reach the connections of your core customer base, this might be an avenue you should explore.
Fact: 53 percent of Facebook's 500 million-plus user base engages in social gaming.
To put that into perspective, in the next phase of gaming, Facebook will only represent 28 percent of social gaming activity, so you can almost triple those numbers above. That's a lot of gaming! And we're not just talking about kids. Most of this social gaming is done by adults, and in fact, it tends to skew female. Marketers are looking for ways to reach these audiences.
eMarketer recently identified a variety of ways that marketers can incorporate their brand into the social gaming sphere:
Integrate your brand into an existing game through virtual goods. From Mashable: In July 2010, "players of the most popular Facebook social game, FarmVille, had for the first time an option to plant a specific branded crop -- Cascadian Farm blueberries -- on their virtual farms. In more than 500 million cases, players chose to purchase and plant the branded blueberries instead of something else. According to Zynga, unaided brand awareness increased 550 percent as a result."
Use display ads or sponsorships in an existing game. eMarketer: "Honda's integration into Cie Games' Car Town was a strong fit. Roadside billboards are a natural part of the landscape in any auto-themed game, so Honda tapped into a captive audience of 3.1 million Car Town players in August 2010, when the promotion ran. (Car Town has since grown its user base to 7.2 million as of December 2010, according to Inside Social Games.)"
Create a hybrid campaign that combines elements of these branding approaches. Zynga worked with 7-Eleven to promote in-game themes and characters in its stores. Users who purchased select in-store products received codes for in-game rewards.
Develop your own game. Forbes reports that "a number of companies are hoping branded social games will give them a boost. The New York Jets recently launched a Facebook game called Ultimate Fan that lets football fans and armchair quarterbacks do what they do best: predict game scores, 'boost' or 'jinx' a team, and hold virtual tailgate parties with other fans. The team created the game together with game developer Arkadium. In addition to engaging the fans, the team expects the game to make money through product placement sponsorships and fans purchasing virtual tailgate items."
Social game usage is growing exponentially. Many of these games use cross-channel platforms and are available on smartphones and tablets, which will only increase their popularity. Certainly, for any major brand out there, social gaming can be a very good way to tap into a highly engaged audience.
Social sponsorships are a way to interject your brand into the conversation by leveraging top social influencers to talk about your company. There is a clear exchange here: The influencers have another avenue to monetize their content, and advertisers get to reach their target audiences in a credible and direct way from sources they already know and trust.
Generally, this is an acceptable practice as long as the publisher takes some clear steps to provide transparency into this transaction. For example, it's become customary to include at the top of the post that the following content has been sponsored by a marketing push. However, in almost all cases, the influencers are allowed to take any stance they wish with regard to the brand -- which includes slamming the product, rating it poorly, etc. So, there is a bit of a gamble here as advertisers aren't able to control the message. Welcome to social media!
Izea was one of the first companies to build a blogger network to bring some sort of scale to the sponsored conversation landscape. Its self-service platform, SocialSpark, allows advertisers to log in and build social sponsorship campaigns that influential bloggers can choose to participate in or not. You can target the kind of audiences you're willing to reach and quickly add campaign parameters such as budget, flight dates, etc.
In the spirit of this transparency, I'd like to mention that our agency has used CafeMom's Influencer Program in the past (with good results, I'm glad to share). I thought that a few of its frequently asked questions (and answers) shed some good light into how most of these sponsored programs work:
The way it works is pretty simple: CafeMom advertisers want real moms to try their products and let other moms know what they think of them. We help the advertisers get the products into the hands of moms and then help the moms tell others what they think.
What is an influencer? Influencers are moms who are connected to lots of other moms and whose opinions will be respected and valued by others.
How are the influencers chosen? CafeMom and our advertisers choose influencers based on a number of things like the mom's level of activity on CafeMom, quality of her writing, and expertise in a particular subject. In addition, the advertiser may specify specific criteria such as mom's age, age of kids, or certain geographical regions depending on whom they are targeting with their particular campaign. Once a mom is chosen to participate, CafeMom will contact her directly via private message on CafeMom and explain the process. You don't have to participate if you are chosen, just let us know.
Do they have to write good things about the product they are trying? No. If someone chosen to be an influencer has a bad experience with that product, they should certainly write about it. Our advertisers want to learn what real moms think about what they have to offer -- and if it's not good, they want to know!
The above is a very good example on how these programs work across sites on the web. The goal for the influencers is not just to make money but also to create quality, relevant content for their audience. Social sponsorships are also an excellent example of how paid social can be used to build earned media.
The game is changing inside the ad unit as well. In the late '90s, we started seeing companies adding their website URLs to their advertising. Now it's common practice. That same tactic is being used now where major brands are adding Facebook and Twitter logos to even their non-clickable offline ads.
In the following example, look how much engagement is offered in a simple banner. Not only does Old Spice include functionality for users to share to their Facebook and Twitter networks, but also incorporates its social stream into the ad unit. At the bottom, users are urged to share their thoughts or watch on YouTube. I don't have any research to offer, but I'd be willing to bet that users would be more willing to click away to a familiar site such as Facebook or YouTube rather than be transported to a brand-specific microsite.
In the next example from SocialMedia.com, HP's ad not only takes advantage of the ability for rich media units to have multi-tabbed experiences, but also integrates social functionality.
In this first phase in social media marketing, owned and earned media have dominated the conversation. It almost seems that many social media practitioners equate anything paid as an enemy of credibility, which clashes with their approach to the medium. However, there's definitely an argument to be made on paid's behalf, especially with the opportunities that have been highlighted in this post. That doesn't mean it needs to be brought in all social media marketing plans, but there just might be a place for paid as a great complement to your owned and earned strategy.
Josh Dreller is VP of media technology and analytics at Fuor Digital.
On Twitter? Follow Dreller at @mediatechguy. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
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