Targeting Social Networks: Community Rules

The prospect of tapping the rich psychographic and behavioral profiles being generated by social network users has, for obvious reasons, set off a race among advertisers, ad networks and social networks themselves to find ever more clever ways to exploit these "target-rich" environments. In their haste to target, however, marketers have so far neglected to understand that advertising in an interactive community must proceed not by its own traditional rules  but by the rules of the community, as Fred Bauer, CEO of Gamervision, explains below,

Behavioral Insider: Could you talk a little about what drew you into, first the gaming world, and then the social network space?

Fred Bauer:
After spending a few decades in the music, movie and music video businesses I came by a rather circuitous route to get involved in video games . My original instinct at that point was a cable TV station that would be an outlet for promotional videos for the games. But it wasn't very long before the TV show, instead of being central, became a vehicle for driving traffic to the Web site.



There were all sorts of gaming sites on the Net, but they all looked alike, very noisy and very cluttered. What we arrived at was a blend of social network and games site, one designed from the ground up to embody a gamer's view of the world. Gamers have an ethos like skateboarders or rockers. So it's important to show their real life, not stereotypes of a 13-year-old in his parent's basement eating pizza and shooting imaginary people.

BI: You've been slow to sell ads on the network.

Bauer: We remained by design ad-free the first year. The first thought originally had been to just collect data for targeted ads. It's a tantalizing 'target' and temptation for a marketer, sure. After all. on a social network your members are giving you information. You have very rich. very detailed profiles to tap. You can ask them practically anything you want and they'll answer you. They'll often give you information even when you don't ask them for it.

The reason we backed off from that approach was that we wanted to build a community, and just hitting our members over the head with the club of advertising was detrimental to that community and the experience we wanted to build. Remember, the goal was to create, from the ground up, a real community experience, a community which at its core is by and for gamers. To  have our users inundated with flashing ads would just add to the clutter and the white noise.

BI: How are you thinking now about using behavioral and other data to, as you say, enhance the community experience?

Fairly early on we had the realization that advertising, if it were really to work, had to be something that could be fully integrated into the texture of the community. For us that meant  the way to try to use data constructively was to make it enhance the user's experience by giving them the tools they need to connect to the content they're interested in more and more easily, to connect with people who have similar interests and to contribute content and recommendations of their own.

The initial way to connect members of the network to advertisers is to make sure the members maintain real control and choice over the kinds of ads they're exposed to and where they prefer to see ads.

BI: How is this theory or principle expressed in practice?

Bauer: So, for instance, we would never just run ads on a member's home page. What we'll have is a separate section, a mall, users can choose to navigate to in the same way they can navigate to in the same way they can navigate to our 'news,' 'reviews,' 'video' and 'blog' sections. Based on their interests and behavior, they may receive a coupon inviting them to go the mall for a certain item that members with similar profiles and interests to them have liked.

BI: Can you talk a little more about the kinds of ways advertiser content is being integrated into the site, and what you see going forward?

Bauer: We have an expanding group of first-wave advertisers we're beginning to work with, among them Sony, Electronic Arts and others. All of them obviously see the potential of tapping a very hard-to-get and well-defined youth demographic. We're phasing these in slowly to integrate them within the community.

An interesting example is that we got a call recently from the U.S. Army and they said, 'We'd be really interested in running a recruitment ad on the site.' The first thing we did was explain to them that we didn't think many of the gamers would be enamoured about seeing an ad to join the army. They said 'You don't understand, gamers have exactly the kinds of skill sets needed in the military. They are creative problem solvers able to rapidly process information and make quick decisions in high pressure situations.'

What we said is that a way they might be able to offer content was by tailoring content to exactly those points about the qualities they see in gaming. Within the context of the network the idea would be that they would essentially tell gamers why their skills and qualities are useful in the military, and perhaps offer ways of showing members what they mean through actual game experiences. That's a very different thing from someone pointing a finger at them and commanding  'Uncle Sam Wants You.'

That's just one example, but an instructive one of how I think all marketers are going to need to be thinking about engaging individuals within the community in an interactive environment. You can't beat people over the head because these kids have been sold things all their lives. They are jaundiced about traditional ads. So it's not just about better targeting of traditional ads, but about creating new ways of integrating message as useful content.

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