Commentary

Can Ad Banners Find A Safe Home In An Online Community?

Kind of surprised that after all of the comments to the Social Media Insider column two weeks ago, last week's, on the Comcast-Plaxo deal, only warranted one. But a damn fine one it was. Says Maria Popova of STICK and MOVE: "Interesting move, no doubt, but even more interesting is the unique context: a social network in the hands of anyone else is not the same as a social network in the hands of Comcast -- particularly because Comcast has such a unique base of negatively charged and highly vocal customers, and it's not unforeseeable that they'd use Plaxo as a platform for vocalizing their grievances and converging around the common scorn for Comcast." If you'd like to continue the conversation, go here and discuss away.

In the meantime, let's move on to this week's topic: a close-up of HGTV.com's "Rate My Space" a niche community site upon which users have uploaded 30,000 pictures of their dens, bathrooms, nurseries, gardens and kitchens, asking the community to, well, rate their space. "It's a very sticky environment," explains Freddy James, vice president/site director for HGTV.com. "I sort of equate it to curling up on the couch on a Sunday afternoon with a design magazine." For those who are passionate about interior and exterior home design, "Rate My Space" is catnip -- it has had more than 150 million page views since its February 2007 launch. (OK, maybe it's not that niche.)

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If you go to the site, what you'll find is a warm and fuzzy experience, imbued with what could be termed an "up-with-granite-countertops-and-stainless-steel-appliances" vibe. Comments tend to be on the congratulatory side, like this one, "Let's see how many adjectives I can give this space. Warm, inviting, elegant, lovely, charming....and on and on...5 stars from me!"

Obviously, in this kind of community, snarkiness isn't an objective, the way it seems to be in many socially networked parts of the online world. This makes it a safe haven for advertisers who might otherwise stay away from social networking. The list of potential advertisers is both broad and deep. Recently, I've seen banners and buttons from behemoths such as Wal-Mart to much more niche advertisers like QuiKrete Concrete Mix.

In terms of the ad model, there's nothing particularly breakthrough here, admittedly. But it works. HGTV is seeing a lot of revenue from the site, although unfortunately its reps wouldn't tell me how much. Still, the site's ad success shows why, in the near term, the banners within "Rate My Space" are a great model -- the site isn't asking online advertisers to do anything different in terms of ad models than what they are already doing, except for placing their ads in a highly targeted environment with potentially better click-through rates. Advertising has always been about being in the right place at the right time -- but wouldn't it be great if the ads were more innovatively embedded into the content? Sure. But Rome wasn't designed in a day, you know.

Of course, HGTV is a brand, too, and its experience with "Rate My Space" shows that niche brands of all stripes should consider entering social networking on their own, even if the payoff at the outset is unclear. "Rate My Space" was built by Neighborhood America, which started out building social networks in the public sector at the beginning of the decade before the term "social networking" had even been coined. "It really didn't have a name. 'Collaborate' was thrown around everywhere," explains David Bankston, Neighborhood America's CTO.

When I talked to David about "Rate My Space," what interested him wasn't just the bump in ad revenue HGTV has gotten from its community, but the other learnings HGTV has gained from having such a direct line to visitor hearts and minds. One of the most viewed nurseries ever posted to the site featured a black, round crib. Is this a trend Pottery Barn Kids should know about? And what to make of a tag cloud that shows that the community has much more interest in the colors green, blue, and brown than white, yellow, pink and black? Get Benjamin Moore on the line!

While HGTV has successfully courted advertisers through this community, the smartest thing its strategists have done is apply what they've learned to their own brand. Case in point: Based on the success of the community, the new TV show, "Rate My Space," debuts this summer.

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