Social Advertising's Identity Crisis

At this point in digital advertising’s short history, brands are aware that they absolutely must have a presence on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.

But in speaking at digital media conferences, I’m shocked to find that a majority of the audience -- including digital marketing executives -- mentally dumps everything related to social into the same bucket. They hear “social,” and no matter what word comes next, whether it’s media or marketing, they think of the intern or PR agency running their Twitter feed or Facebook page. 

Almost everyone is oblivious to the fact that there’s social media, and then there’s social advertising. Both are important components of a media plan, but they are very different strategies that lead to different end goals.

Social media is the practice of setting up a brand page on a network and engaging in conversation with consumers. It’s not really marketing, yet several sophisticated media buyers I have spoken with assume that having a Twitter feed and a Facebook page means they can check off the social component of their marketing plan and move on.



In reality, this strategy is closer to marcom or customer relationship management than it is to true advertising, and it fails to meet actual marketing goals.

Social advertising is the natural progression of digital advertising into the social stream: paid units that deliver high-scale, real advertising that can actually build brands. You know -- the kind of stuff digital agencies exist to execute. Think of it this way: tweeting to Comcast because your cable is out is not the same as clicking on an offer for a new cable subscription.

The lack of education among even the most sophisticated buyers is alarming, and truth be told, networks like Facebook and Twitter are partly to blame.

Twitter’s recent redesign was supposed to capitalize on marketing opportunities, but the only clear change for potential advertisers came in the form of brand pages. We’ve seen those before -- on Facebook -- and the truth is that it's still social media, not social advertising. Every agency knows about Facebook’s paid offering, but it has not captured anyone’s attention because it resembles Google’s ineffective keyword model imported in a social setting.

Social networks are failing to take advantage of their largest advertising asset, which is the trove of data they sit atop. Many advertisers build free brand pages and feeds, completely unaware that they can leverage this data to find new audiences and build brands.

And while marketers and media professionals are the most confused, it’s the networks themselves that have the power to differentiate social advertising from social media. Current Facebook and Twitter ad models revolve around serving ads to customers who are either already fans or are closely related to fans. Facebook’s Sponsored Stories product shows users what their friends like, but it doesn’t expand the audience base.

The networks are beginning to understand what they have, and are making it easier for marketers to leverage all of this information to target the consumers who are most receptive to the brand message.

Third parties that tap into Twitter and Facebook advertising are pushing social advertising to new levels as well, and this year will see social ad buying move away from the social-graph model toward targeting based on the interest graph. Consumers willingly share information, and they turn to their networks of choice to actively engage, creating a great opportunity for serving targeted ads that they are very likely to engage with. To get there, marketers must understand that engaging with a brand page and an ad are two different things.

Maintaining a social media presence to nurture the existing client base is crucial, but marketers who only rely on social media will be passed by when they fail to spread their brand message. The networks will lose ad dollars as well if they fail to define the difference.

To fully harness the power of social advertising, advertisers need to buy into the new model and think of social as something beyond an entry-level employee sending out 140-character press releases.

3 comments about "Social Advertising's Identity Crisis".
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  1. Steve Schildwachter from Enterprise CMO, LLC, January 18, 2012 at 6:21 p.m.

    Jon, thank you for writing a clear, instructive article that everyone in marketing needs to read. Really liked it. Great, practical perspective. Thanks again!

  2. Grant Crowell from, January 19, 2012 at 9:02 a.m.

    Unfortunately most of what is classified today as social video advertising stops at brand awareness forgets or dismisses the follow-up "social" part: giving customers incentives and customer care, and cultivating actual relationships. It's one thing to "seed" interesting videos on popular social media and video sharing sites; it's quite another thing to harness that attention into actual interest in the brand and the campaign.

    That being said Jon, makes a good point about how any conversation and audience engagement needs to be accompanied by measurable results that sustain a business. For more on that, I recommend checking out my 2-part interview with the author of "No BullS**T Social Media," Jason Falls on no-bs social video over at (MediaPost won't allow me to put in the full word, which is in the URL!)

  3. Kevin Horne from Verizon, January 23, 2012 at 7:19 p.m.

    you turned "marketing" from paragraph 2 into "advertising" in paragraph 3, completely losing your thread and frankly your credibility...

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