Commentary

The Evolution Of Social Specific Advertising And The Extinction Of The Widget

Remember that kid you knew in high school, who went away for the summer to someplace foreign, like Europe or Canada or Upper Montclair, and came back so dramatically altered that you didn't even recognize him? Eight pounds of lean muscle, a fresh haircut, clothes from a store that's not in any of your local malls, a couple shades of tan and suddenly he's almost a new person. His DNA is unchanged, of course, but he's been otherwise transformed by the environment he has been in.

The same thing has happened to widgets. The widgets I knew--the ones designed expressly to deliver content or utility in a personal or social environment, the ones whose distribution was driven exclusively by being pulled through the channel by consumers eager to add its utility to their own blog or personal homepage, the ones whose very success or failure was a direct result of how well their creators understood the relationship between brand relevance, audience expectation and social media--have undergone a wholesale metamorphosis.

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Now you'll still see thousands of little applications that look very much like widgets. In fact, you'll likely see thousands more than you used to, with a frequency nosed previously only by banners depicting people dancing alongside impossibly low mortgage rates.

Ever opportunistic, the ad networks seized upon what they thought was the single shortcoming throttling widgets' breakneck acceleration: limited and fickle distribution based on viral activity and a need for creative effectiveness. Up sprung "widget advertising networks," one after another, all promising the same benefits previously attributed to widgets being pulled through the channel, but now with exponentially greater distribution and greater frequency visibility. Why wait a week or longer for 50,000 widget installs when a network buy can put the same piece of code in front of millions of people in a single weekend?

The objective was to amplify a widget's reach and bring the power of this breakthrough new format outside of social media and into the rest of the web.

But the result is that a widget is nothing more than a rich media ad with a "grab it" button. It just doesn't work the same. It's like bringing your wife to Cancun. You can do it, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. Cancun will still be fun, just not for you.

If a widget had a soul, it wouldn't be its code or its technical ability to spread virally. A widget's soul would be in its marriage of design and function within a specific environment. A Socially Specific environment, to be exact. Widgets created for broader distribution across networks need not be so environment specific to succeed. Like armies of zombies in so many movies, they're left to wander the web, soulless.

Perhaps the greatest casualty of this evolution is the confusion it has created within the marketplace. A year ago, a widget marketing strategy WAS a social media strategy. Today it isn't, necessarily. But a widget could still be an important part of a social media strategy, depending on where and how it is distributed, targeted and created. Confused? You're in good company--I have this same conversation in agencies across the country, almost daily.

Here is what I tell them: A social media strategy is a function not of what format the ads are in and/or what sites the ads run on. A true social media strategy is one where the ad's creative and function are integrated tightly within the environment--so much so that the same ad outside of the environment would wither and die, like a healthy tree transplanted into clayey, compacted soil. Grasses, ground cover, even some flowers may grow there. But that tree's roots simply won't take hold.

The only way to think of a truly effective social media strategy is as Socially Specific Advertising. Despite its close resemblance to what we think of as "interactive," social media is a different medium. You wouldn't put your magazine ad on a billboard, even though both are technically printed. Similarly, Socially Specific Advertising requires the same dedicated approach in order to succeed.

Marketing within Social Applications running on Facebook is an obvious example, and Facebook is immensely important to the burgeoning practice of socially specific advertising. But it's equally important to take the long view of the industry and anticipate further evolutions, and also understand the nuances separating different social networks. For example, just last week I met with a developer who is launching a socially specific campaign solely on MySpace.com.

Madness? Not at all. The advertiser is in the aftermarket automotive industry, and their market of "pimpers" and aficionados of "bling" are more easily found on MySpace than FaceBook. Targeting is paramount in socially specific advertising, and sometimes requires the understanding that MySpace is as effective as a niche as it is as a mass reach vehicle. Today's Socially Specific Advertising campaigns should be conscious of the industry's continuing evolution and be designed to capitalize on it, instead of battling against it.

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