Commentary

Maybe Advertising In Social Media Should Be An Oxymoron

I'm still mulling a social networking panel I saw last week at Ogilvy's Verge Summit in New York. So, rather than keep mulling it within the limited confines of my brain, I've decided to share what I heard on that panel with the Social Media Insider community -- people who, I've noticed, comment on just about everything, and intelligently, too.

The panel included two of the biggest names in for-profit blogging: John Battelle, who runs the blog ad network Federated Media (and, just, in general, knows his shit), and Nick Denton, head of Gawker Media, whose job on panels seems to be to counter everything that everyone else has said. (He once said to me -- and he's told this to others, too -- that he's never said he created Gawker Media to make a profit, so we'll see if he takes the bait on my "for-profit" description and comments.)

Battelle sees social media as the thing that will finally make online advertising truly engaging: "I think social media is the place that is going to happen. I really believe that," he said on the panel. Denton, meanwhile, said that the very thing that makes social media so attractive to consumers makes it a "failure as an advertising medium." In other words, people don't want to be sold to when they are deeply engaged in a highly personal medium. Since that panel I've been wondering, which one is right? Or is it possible that both points of view, taken in the appropriate context, could be right?

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Battelle talked about the success of Federated's partnership with Dell on Facebook's Graffiti Wall application in January, where there was a contest which let users illustrate what "green" meant to them. The effort was created to support Dell's ReGeneration initiative, but it may be difficult to think of it as a campaign -- as long as a campaign is defined as an outbound series of marketing messages, delivered on a set schedule, centered around a central product and theme.

There are a lot of impressive stats here: 1.1 million people voted on their favorite illustration, 7,300 people entered a submission, the contest has almost 1,300 friends, and there are currently 209 comments to the post at ReGeneration.org announcing the winners. Clearly, Dell's ReGeneration effort supports Battelle's contention that social media may finally make online advertising much more interesting to users than the ongoing crop of forgettable banner campaigns.

Now, change your focus to a little online ad button on Facebook featuring a picture of a man's balding head and touting a hair loss cream. That ad is pretty representative of Denton's point of view. I even saw the ad within the pages of the ReGeneration group. Yecch! What is it doing there? Clearly, we don't have social networking's killer advertising app down quite yet.

But the dichotomy remains fascinating. Does this medium work for advertising? Well, if you define it in the way we've always defined advertising, I think you have to support Denton. There's something so highly personal about my Facebook page that I don't particularly like it when that same ad for hair loss cream shows up in what I've come to think of as my personal space. Seriously, folks, my Facebook photo demonstrates that I have so much hair, I might need a cream that does the opposite -- there's a little voice inside me that feels that if my Facebook page is going to advertise at me, it should know that.

On the other hand, if you think of social media advertising as conversations marketers are striking up with their constituents, then Battelle has a point. But whatever these interactions are, they shouldn't be called advertising, and maybe not even marketing. They should be called something else.

This morning I talked to James Gross, the East Coast director of sales at Federated, and asked him what he calls initiatives like Dell's Graffiti Wall contest. He paused a minute and said, "I don't want to call it a conversation," before settling on "overall brand experience."

Interestingly, no agency was used to create this, um, engagement situation. Though Gross stressed that Federated loves advertising agencies and works with them every day, it came about because Federated not only works with Dell on the more mundane business of selling banners, but also because the people at Dell had been fascinated with a live version of Graffiti Wall (an application which Federated represents) that ran at an Oracle conference.

Should putting these deals together always be the role of an ad agency? Not necessarily -- especially if you don't call this advertising.

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