Commentary

Social Media Advertising: Fixes For a Fractured Space

Social media has completely redefined the nature of the consumer-business relationship. From dining out to buying in, people are increasingly living out their daily lives online, and nearly all of this activity has social underpinnings.

Marketers have followed suit in a big way, reaching out to these captive audiences and leveraging Internet users' social spheres to influence purchasing decisions. In fact, advertising on social networks grew almost 34 percent in 2008[1] and, despite the down economy, nearly half of marketing firms say they plan to increase marketing spend in social media in the year ahead.[2]

Sounds great, right? So where's the fracture?

The proliferation of social media and new advertising mediums has created a fragmented marketplace that has left many advertisers and media buyers scratching their heads, questioning how to close the gap between consumer purchase behavior and online advertising. What's more, as economic conditions continue to bear down on budgets, requiring even better ROI, many are left wondering which social media options deliver the best performance.

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So, how can advertisers find and reach audiences ready to be influenced around buying decisions?

Think of social media as a as a bar stool, with each leg supported by the networks, content-driven communities, blogs and microblogs. The stool represents an entire world on the Web in which conversations are taking place and consumers are being influenced.

For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on the three content-driven legs of the bar stool. Why? Because, while audiences have flocked to social networks in droves and they represent enormous future advertising potential, monetization of the space is still largely lacking. Advertising has historically flourished as part of a content-rich experience, and social networks are still more about the connection and sharing content that has already been posted in those rich, content-driven legs. Currently, a sprawling landscape of consumer-generated media is currently being identified, classified and aggregated by an army of both established and upstart ad networks. Like-minded publishers (both individual blogs and content-driven communities) are being strung together by links within online conversations - or in many cases joining vertical ad networks - making it increasingly possible for advertisers to zero in on extremely relevant, quality content on specific topics.

How do marketers identify the most impactful pockets of conversation and engage target audiences? Three words: targeting, relevance, timing.

Bullseye: While reach is an important factor in placing ads on blogs, it is even more important to determine where the most impactful conversations are occurring (there are tools and networks that can help you do this) and then use that information to deliver highly targeted ads to those audiences. By targeting the conversations that are most likely to influence customers during purchase decisions, your brand message is more apt to be read, recalled and even clicked on, rather than just glanced over. And, the conversation doesn't need to be about your brand or product, but it should be about something your customers care about.

Relevance: Social marketers could do well by taking a page from the search marketer's playbook, making sure that relevance is top of mind with every message delivered. Just as the search box acts as a crystal ball into consumer intent, the connections within social media will help you follow the consumer's journey across publishers-from one hyperlink to another. This journey tells us a great deal about consumer intent. Once you understand that intent, you can create messages that are highly relevant for your customers. For example, you can serve different ads within the content as a consumer journeys along the path to making a purchase.

The Clock is Ticking: Haven't we all heard that timing is everything? It's no different in social media. In order to hit your target audience at the right time in the decision-making process, it is important to understand where various social media marketing strategies fall within the consumer purchase funnel: do you want to hit people at the awareness stage (e.g. at the top of the funnel) or closer to the point of sale? A study we did with Jupiter Research in August 2008 found that blogs factor into critical stages of the purchase process, weighing most heavily at the final stages of a purchase decision. Over half of blog readers say that the content played a critical role in deciding to move ahead with a purchase.

So, let's say you've followed these three principals...how do you know you've done well with your social media campaign? (yes, I mean measurement).

Although important, it's not just about impressions or clicks anymore. Social media has deepened customer relationships with trusted niche publishers, and helped uncover new metrics of engagement. Measurement is no longer simply about traffic and page views - it's about the conversation and how your customers participate. When you can uncover online conversations specific to your campaign focus, and then target the sites of online influencers leading the conversation with a relevant message at the right time-then you've hit social media gold.

We know consumers have gotten the hang of connecting with one another online-isn't it about time we marketers figured it out?

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