There are just two catches to this: it's been done before, and it's not the future of anything. It's a bell, a whistle, or maybe a bell and a whistle if executed well. But it's not going to fundamentally change advertising, social media, or anything else.
The latest entry in the space is TweetMeme's Adtweets, announced in late November. TweetMeme, which has become the go-to Twitter aggregator and the most prominent source of "retweet this" buttons around the Web, is allowing advertisers to add a retweet button to standard ad units. You can't blame TweetMeme for overselling it: "The Adtweets are a way of putting pressure on advertisers to improve the standard of adverts..."
While it sounds rather charming with the British accent, it's not going to improve ad quality. Instead, it might put more pressure on advertisers to attempt to create humorous or captivating ads that may do nothing to help their brand. Evian's "Rollerbabies" ad just earned a Guinness World Record by becoming the most viewed online ad ever, with over 45 million views, yet I have yet to see any coverage of the record that mentions Evian's market share or any other success metric from the brand's perspective. Maybe a needle moved, maybe nothing happened, but it's hardly a clear-cut case that a viral ad means it's successful.
The concept of sharing ads through social media isn't new. Google Gadget Ads launched in September 2007, and I don't know if I've ever seen one in the thousands of hours I've spent online since then. Clearspring and Gigya have also offered such functionality, and Spongecell makes it easy to "share with friends, or the world - without leaving the ad." I love that this functionality exists, but most of the time it's not necessary.
Here are four reasons why this isn't a game-changer:
1) Most ads aren't worth sharing. There are always exceptions to this rule -- the DVR-proof ads on TV you'll look for on YouTube and the newspaper and magazine ads you'll rip out and save. The same applies to banner ads, but that's relatively rare.
2) Sharing often isn't the best call to action. Are you trying to get a consumer to buy something? Request more information? Go to a store? Watch a TV show or movie on a certain date? Learn more about a new product? Get exposed to a new brand name? Think more positively about a brand? In any of these cases, sharing competes with the primary call to action. And if the primary call to action is to share the ad, what's the purpose?
3) Network-specific ads work best within those networks. Consider Facebook's Engagement Ads and Digg Ads that can be voted up or down. Each of those advertising experiences is customized to the publisher. Yet a Facebook ad wouldn't work the same way on the homepage of Forbes.com, and visitors to WebMD would generally be thrown off by Digg buttons on ads running there. As for tweetable ads, targeting can help -- a tweetable ad on TweetMeme.com or TechCrunch will find a more receptive audience than if it ran on a mainstream publisher. But such ads will still need to clearly illustrate why such sharable functionality makes sense in that context. I'm skeptically inclined to think advertisers will slap a "tweet this" or "share this" button on less discriminately, and then call it a social media campaign.
4) Most marketers and agencies don't plan earned and paid media together. That makes the value proposition a harder sell. Consider a marketer running display ads to drive traffic to its site, and (generously) 1% of consumers click the ad. Say that marketer adds sharing functionality, the click-through rate (CTR) drops to 0.8%, but another 0.7% of consumers share the ad with their friends. In the latter scenario, that can be lumped together as a 1.5% engagement rate, but instead the marketer will be held accountable for the 20% drop in CTR from 1% to 0.8%. If you're still with me, let's take it one step further. The shared version of that ad (shared 0.7% of the time) would need a 29% CTR to generate enough clicks for those marketing strategists to keep their jobs. Then they have two choices in this admittedly oversimplified scenario: they have to demonstrate the value of the ad's pass-along rate, or they have to go back to generating clicks as efficiently as they can.
I still love the idea of sharable ads. It will become more common, and I'm sure a lot of marketers and agencies will use it in ways that achieve their goals. But it isn't going to make advertising better, any more than YouTube has made TV advertising better. It's just one more option marketers have online, where some pioneers will get great PR for it, some followers will ride the hype coattails, and most others will consider it -- if and when sharable ads make sense for them.