Commentary

Social Networks: Show Me The Media

If you can define "social media," please stand up.

Time and time again, I get asked by clients to shed some light on this term. Does it refer broadly to any content (traditional or "new") that includes a social element, like comment fields or track backs? Or is it a catch-all phrase for the content generated from every single Web 2.0 platform and application - including blogs, social networks, micro-publishing, media sharing sites and widgets?

The term gets even more maddening when you append the word "strategy" to it. What does that mean exactly? Is having a social media strategy synonymous with having a Facebook or YouTube strategy?

Clearly, one of the most confusing aspects of social media marketing is not what to do or how to do it - it's how to talk about it. And our industry certainly doesn't make it any easier. Take all of the recent press around MySpace and Facebook: during the last year, advertising in these and other social networks has become the de facto definition of "social media advertising." But, because click-through rates have been dismal thus far on social networks, there is a real perception that social media itself (not just networks) can't perform.

But are social networks and social media one in the same? No. Does the distinction matter? Yes.

Social networks represent enormously huge advertising potential that is sure to be cracked wide open over time but, for now, they present a complex monetization riddle due to the nature of user behavior. People visit social networks to discover what another friend is reading. Invite people to events. Learn about someone's birthday. Poke someone. Addictive, yes. Commerce-driven? Not necessarily. This is because social networks are still about relationships, not content.

Advertising has traditionally excelled as part of a highly-targeted, rich content experience. Certainly, in a time in which consumers are increasingly able to control where, when and how they view ads, the current contextual advertising model has its work cut out for it. Yet when it comes to the bulk of advertising online, content is still king, and a social graph alone does not make a media powerhouse, no matter how high a particular company's valuation may be.

On the other hand, the vast interconnected world of social media - generated from media sharing sites and blogging platforms - is indeed about content. But today's content has something new going for it: it's socially-charged. Because publishing power has been democratized and content is easily syndicated and shared with a few clicks of the mouse, it has become highly specific and meaningful to its readers in a way the old-school "one-to-many" publishing model could never hope to achieve.

Millions of people expect and demand a highly personal content experience; as such, new media caters to countless niches of consumers hungry to learn all they can about everything from drag racing to wine making. The boon for advertisers is the fact that the socially-connected nature of today's media landscape means access to millions of engaged readers and a window into intent rivaled only by search.

Call it social media, new media or conversational media -- this is what the online media of today looks like. Currently, no single entity owns or profits from this new media, which means there is no blue print to assist advertisers in discovering, purchasing, or measuring it. Yet because this content is raw, passionate and specific, it attracts a highly-engaged group of readers who avidly follow conversation threads and "go down the rabbit hole" to uncover more and more information. If an ad can present relevant material in a non-obtrusive, intelligent and useful way, then you've got something pretty powerful. This is why blog ad networks focusing on quality over quantity are commanding CPMs in the several dollar range, while social networks are trailing behind at an average .13 CPM.

Let me be clear that I think social networks have incredible potential. Audiences are there in droves and, where consumers go, advertisers will follow. But focusing too heavily on social networks as the dominant component in a social media advertising mix ignores a sprawling landscape of consumer generated media that is currently being identified, classified and aggregated by an army of established and upstart ad networks.

Like-minded publishers are being strung together -- or in some cases, forming and monetizing their own ad network communities -- making it increasingly possible for advertisers to zero in on super-connected quality content in niche areas. Social media companies and the old guard are forming alliances to help further this opportunity. Case in point: Adify empowers mainstream sites to build their own networks of relevant blogger affiliates across key verticals, giving advertisers a unique blend of targeting and reach across relevant online media -- consumer generated, or otherwise. Given the advertiser opportunity at hand, questioning "social media" ad performance potential solely on the basis of social networks' current monetization challenges seems short-sighted.

The reality is, all online media is moving in a social direction. Take a look at any traditional publication's website to see the new focus on community, user voting, feedback and blogs. The term social media is really just a stop-gap until we all get over the hump and start just calling it online media again. Not too long ago we used to refer to watching "TV" and "cable" as two separate entities. Can you imagine needing that clarification today? Similarly, social media and media will become one in the same.

As for social networks, who knows what the future holds? Some say social networking will infuse the total online media experience. In this world, people's blogs won't exist separately from their Facebook profile -- instead one universal profile will host all content and connections.

And we'll get to start the name game all over again.

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