When it comes to social media, forget the concept of advertising to a captive audience and instead focus on creating branded content that people want to see and would choose to share with others: brand advertising as social media content.
All heads seem to nod enthusiastically when this statement is made. Sounds good, but...
"Advertising as content is a great idea, but it's just too difficult, if it's even possible at all."
"Maybe some brands can be compelling content, but not mine."
"I'd love to make compelling content with my brand, but I have to control my brand message/image."
It's true. Creating compelling content is more work, and brands must be willing to give up some control -- but if marketers cannot figure out how their brand become a part of social media content, then perhaps their brand should become a part of history.
I have cited the example of magazines as display advertising that is truly content in a traditional medium. I have cited the example of search engine marketing as performance advertising that is content online. Perhaps the trouble with all prior conversations is that it can be difficult to see how brand advertising can ever really become part of social media content, especially when we look at where we are with display advertising in social media today. It's because 99.9% of advertising run in social media today comes with some sort of negative association.
Social media is just a representation of how people interact in the real world, where brands are woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. There is no one way for brands to do this. Brands support the entertainment we love. Brands make the funny commercials we share. Brands help to define cultural trends. Brands are certainly on the clothes we wear. Brands support the causes and charities we care about. Brands are a major part of the content of our offline lives.
What brands need to understand is that they not only can, but must, play the same role in the online world that they have historically played in the offline world. People will be more than willing to help by bringing brands and branded content with them into social media. Marketers just need to focus on how they can make it easier.
How can their brand become relevant to and support social media conversations? How can a brand ask consumers to share its brand message? How can a brand build goodwill and brand equity in the social media generation? The secret is that there is no secret: It's not that different from how brands have done all of the above prior to the social media generation. The difference might simply reside in scaling successful offline practices and adapting to social media environments (the social networks will play the largest role in supporting this).
It might be more work, as we have to understand how these marketing practices translate from television, radio and print to MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. But, in a world of TiVo, digital media channels, on-demand, attention fragmentation and general user control, brands and their agencies face a clear challenge: become content or become history.