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Anthropology, Technology, The Social Web and Advertising by Dave Allen

As we approach 2010 and the new decade, I decided to revisit this essay, one I originally wrote and posted in June of 2008. For much of this decade, social media as an idea, term or simply a phrase, has been willfully bandied around by agencies and social media “consultants” et al, as if it was the cure-all for any brands’ online presence. White noise engulfed common sense; nature, particularly how humans behave in society, was hardly ever considered as marketers embraced what they considered, the white-hot future wrought by technology. That lack of consideration of human behavior on the web when it came to an online brand strategy, I believe, was an early mistake that really muddied the waters.

Just this week, in a post titled “Texting Isn’t The Distraction, Driving Is: A Parable For Social Business” Stowe Boyd wrote:

“In the social business context, this is similar to the acceptance of the personal element of social networking online, the acceptance that human life is lived in specific connections with other specific people, not in some generalized business context where workers are interchangeable parts.

Management often responds to the adoption of social tools the way that public policy has responded to texting while driving: they make it illegal to be social while working.

The far-sighted response will be to make it easier to gain the benefits of social business, and to rethink the organization and management of work around human nature instead to [sic] persisting in trying to ‘rise above’ what makes us people in the first place.”

That last paragraph, linking human nature to the benefits of social business, is a good jumping off point as any for how to discuss an online brand strategy with clients. Social Media has often been offered as a panacea, or a “solution” to a “problem” that doesn’t actually exist. Good strategy requires that hard questions be asked of how people, when using the social web, will interact with your brand. What would they naturally do?

What follows is the original post with changes or updates marked as so – [Update] or [Edit]. 18 months is an eternity on the web, but on re-reading this it seems, that with regard to social networking, change has been incremental at best. After all, we are still debating the difference, if there is any, between digital and traditional agencies.

From June 2008 with Updates & Edits

These days the advertising and marketing world is all abuzz with phrases such as - Social Media, Social Advertising, Facebook Ads, Mass Media Networking Advertising.....etc, etc.. In the last two weeks I have been a panelist at the L I S A seminar in Portland and the Hawaii MusicTech Conference in Honolulu. L.I.S.A., which is an acronym for Lessons In Social Advertising, was aimed at marketers and advertisers who [for some reason] don't understand social networks or haven't yet worked out how to advertise effectively to them. It focused on topics such as 'What is social advertising?' and 'How do you get young people to recommend your brand?' The Hawaii MusicTech panel discussed how musicians could effectively use social networks such as Facebook and MySpace to reach an audience and communicate with them.

Two sides of the table as it were. One group wants to advertise, or push, their messages to a mass audience, while the other wants to create a network of like-minded people who hopefully will pull content such as free MP3s and then "evangelize" on behalf of the musicians by spreading messages by electronic word of mouth. With no hint of schizophrenia I happily migrate between both camps.

To understand and embrace social networking is to place the idea that says "technology makes this possible" to one side and embrace the idea of the basic human need to stay in touch with other like-minded people at all times. As Clay Shirky says “The desire to be part of a group that shares, cooperates, or acts in concert is a basic human instinct.” Think about rock concerts for a minute.....

Most people that take a position on social networking and advertising come at it from a technological point of view, as in "technology has created the means for everyone to be connected and to stay in touch." I disagree with that statement because it removes nature from the game. It is entirely natural for humans to want to interact as often as possible as we are all social animals. Cities are no more artificial (technological) than the hives of bees. Therefore the Internet is as natural as a spider's web. People who believe that technology is driving our interactions are missing the point - we ourselves are technological devices, invented by ancient bacterial communities as a means of genetic survival. Bottom line - social media is as natural as apple pie as we all want to be as connected as possible - we can't help it. [A really good book from which I have borrowed some thoughts is 'Straw Dogs' by John Gray, professor of European thought at LSE, published in the UK by Granta.]

Online networks might be seen as antidotes to boredom at work, school or college. These new social networks do more than transmit information about their members, they change behaviour by propagating moods. These days we can all share "news" really fast, even about ourselves - for example, my Facebook or Twitter status might say "I'm heading to the beach in Waikiki..." and the mood that simple statement makes might become very contagious.

The Internet confirms what we have all known for a long time - the world is ruled by the power of suggestion but in the case of social networking it is "influencers" that lead the suggesting. Then suggestions might become "group think." John Gray writes - "in evolutionary prehistory, consciousness emerged as a side effect of language. Today it is a by product of media."

So, the question currently being asked by companies and advertisers is "how do we market and advertise to social networks?" Having to ask that question suggests the rocky ground that online advertisers are standing on. For instance, Jack Myers sees nothing but doom and gloom in online marketing: He says "Advertising is simply not a sufficient revenue model to sustain content companies into the long-term future." And goes on -

"I have preached evangelically for nearly three decades about the bifurcation of the media and advertising marketplace into 1) a transactional commodity business model and 2) a relationship-based brand-focused premium marketplace. Most media companies and agencies are investing appropriately in the technology resources required for their transactional businesses. [But] Brand building, relationship-based business models and premium-priced enterprises require completely new and innovative models, and can take years before they generate returns that justify the investments. Industry realities place enormous pressure on executives to adhere to traditional business models, and companies that foster and advance innovation are often drained of resources before they can deliver the return-on-investment demanded by the stock market, equity rights holders and VC investors. Typically, implementation of new business models must be forcefully imposed by the CEO, need the blessing of investors, and they cannot be managed by executives trained exclusively in the ways of traditional media and advertising."

Neil Perkin in a slideshow entitled 'What's Next in Media' that can be found here says that today - Social Media is counter-intuitive to communications media. Here's one of his slides that shows just how counter-intuitive things have become for marketing online:

Social Media

Meanwhile, the old way of marketing is through push messaging and therein lies the mistake of many of today's marketing managers. Take a look at this slide to see how things don't stack up nicely into a marketing message or 'drop' that has been long planned waiting its turn on the calendar.

Social Media

The Linear model above reminds me of traditional TV and Print advertising. Some people in advertising and marketing today still view the Internet as a "channel" rather like TV.

Let's consider another buzz phrase - viral marketing online. The success of YouTube in extending an advertising campaigns length and reach is now common currency. We've all seen the videos, perhaps even this one - My girlfriend and the Wii Fit. 2.2 million views and going strong.

The viral aspect of YouTube pleases advertisers and marketers because they can take pride in the statistics - 2.2 million viewers, that's great! Not so quick though. The wise online marketer knows that it's not all about page impressions. Broad use of metrics is far more important - users, time-spent, interactions and pass-alongs. The Wii certainly got a lot of exposure in that video but how can the results be tracked? Where's the ROI?

Those YouTube stats don't show the whole picture. It is clear that the video is very popular and it fits the rules of users, time-spent, interactions and pass-alongs, but there is no clear ROI except in its "value." By value I mean that the brand is being talked about, the brand via the video is being shared, people are "spending time" with the brand. The ROI though is difficult to judge. Even if Wii sales were to jump by 5% in one week can we really say it was due to this "viral" campaign. Probably not. The video's value will continue throughout its lifetime on YouTube. Talk of value over ROI makes marketing managers queazy.

Viral campaigns are not just online. From Adrants: Jack Goldenberg tells the story of how he and Kevin Glennon turned a custom-made Obama for President watch into what could become a fairly sizable viral campaign for the candidate.

"Most people think of viral marketing as something they've seen on YouTube or a similar site. But in reality, a viral is any communication that causes one person to be so affected by "experiencing" the viral that they communicate it to another." He also argues that "Happy Meal toys were an in-home reminder of the need to visit McDonald's. Kids would see two or three of them on their desk in their room and say, "Mom, Dad, we HAVE to go back to McDonald's. I need 3 more Star Treks Happy Meals to complete my collection.....the Happy Meal was viral - kid to parent-multiplied by the millions of kids who frequented McDonald's."

That's an example of an early viral campaign. We can perceive its "value" but we can't perceive its ROI. And that's why Jack Myers, as I quoted above, says "(completely new, innovative models) can take years before they generate returns that justify the investments." If as marketers we don't understand social media and merely pay lip service to viral marketing then we are basically flying by the seat of our pants.

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine and blogger at The Long Tail, has pitched in to the social media advertising conversation with a post entitled You may be on Facebook But the Money's in the Long Tail. He also posits that "social networks should be a feature, not a destination."

As Chris says, and I agree, "I've been thinking a lot about how to integrate social networking into websites better. Right now the world is focused on stand-alone social networking sites, especially Facebook and MySpace, and the fad of the moment is to take brands and services there, as companies build Facebook apps and MySpace pages in a bid to follow the audience wherever they happen to be. But at the same time there's a growing sense that elements of social networking is something all good sites should have, not just dedicated social networks. And that suggests a very different strategy - social networking as a feature, not a destination."

He has a proviso too - "social networking to me means the tracking of individual preferences and behavior and giving users the ability to draw upon implicit or explicit connections between them and other users to do something useful." This brings me to Ning, a social network platform that both Chris and I like. As he says "Ning, suppresses its own brand for the sake of those of the microsites it hosts." Go here to see how the hip hop/rap label, Rawkus, uses Ning as its entire web presence.

Chris goes on to say - "As I think about the current Facebook craze and the notion of it as an all-encompassing platform, sucking in functionality from other sites across the board, I find myself skeptical. With my Long Tail hat on, I think that one-size-fits-all will fail in social networking, just as it has everywhere else."

Meanwhile MySpace admits that it is not making as much money through ads as it would like. See Selling Ads For MySpace is Hard Work. MySpace COO Peter Chernin said:

"We remain incredibly optimistic about social media. But there are specific challenges 1) Tons of inventory. Lack of scarcity creates a liquidity challenge. Working on bringing big brands aboard. 2) People who are visiting social networks are there for different reasons, different uses. Figuring out how to target. 3) What's the value of a "friend"? Trying to figure out new metrics to communicate with marketers."

Bottomline: It's the wild, wild west out there.

Anderson points out that ad rates on MySpace go for an astonishingly low $0.13 cents per CPM (one thousand impressions.) So that's $0.13 on a general-purpose social network like MySpace and on his Ning-hosted network DIYDrones he's getting $7.00. Even with a more generous scenario--$0.50 on MySpace and $5.00 on a focused Ning site--the difference is still a factor of ten. He believes that as big networks like Facebook and MySpace struggle to target ads based on the faint signals of consumer behavior in a generic social network, the smart money is going to the niche sites, where laser-focused content and community makes targeting easy. I couldn't agree more. Also see: Facebook Ads Don't Rock an experiment by Bob Gilbreath, an advertising executive who ran an ad on Facebook. It's a real eye-opener. And another - Ad CPMs Are Higher In The Tail. And of course companies are springing up that think they have the answer to your problems in dealing with big social networks. Here's one.

What this all points to is that companies should be advertising directly to those niche groups and networks that include people who would like to hear from their brand. The brands need to wait until they are invited in. A mass, scatter-shot approach to the large social networks will only fail.

Companies also need to consider Radical Transparency. For those unaware of this concept there's a great article here on Wired Magazine's site. I also wrote about it myself when Wired's web site crashed. The basis of this theory is that you open the company's doors [only as much as you like] by creating communication between your company and its fans and detractors. It's a big step and for some, especially executives, it will cause a great deal of unease.

Wal-Mart used this approach to great effect. Here's the original story from the New York Times and here's just one bloggers' reaction. And here is the Wal-Mart blog.

As the NYT article says "Known for its strict, by-the-books culture — accepting a cup of coffee from a supplier can be a firing offense — Wal-Mart is now encouraging its merchants to speak frankly, even critically, about the products the chain carries. This unusual new Web site, which was quietly created during the holiday shopping season, has become a forum for unvarnished rants about gadgets, raves about new video games and advice on selecting environmentally sustainable food.

Corporate blogs are nothing new — General Motors, Dell and Boeing have them — but Wal-Mart’s site, called Check Out, turns the traditional model on its head. Instead of relying on polished high-level executives, it is written by little-known buyers, largely without editing."

And the key point there is "without editing." Once a company opens the doors it can not close them. If a company starts a blog [and it should] it can not moderate the comments. And the CEO and other executives should not be contributing to the blog if they do not have the right "authority" or "voice". By that I mean authenticity. It's an overused word at times but in the right context it is completely accurate. If a CEO were to jump on the blog to blow her own trumpet non-critically about a company's service or product the readers would see through it immediately. Being authentic means the blog author is a "trusted source" and this trust can never be abused.

A blog is a micro social network. My blog garners around 100,000 unique visits a month and its adherents are seeking out what I have to say about music, technology and the web. I am well versed in those things. I have an opinion about them. I also provide free music downloads from artists that I have "filtered." I only post music from artists that I like and I believe that my audience will like them too. In short I have become a trusted source [people like my opinions,] a filter [people share my musical tastes,] and I am an influencer [I push certain artists and online companies that I support,] as well as an authority [people believe that I know what I am talking about.] A company's blogger or bloggers need to have all these bases covered if they are going to safely cover the company's communications through the blog.

Meanwhile the executives have to sit back and allow the comments, both good and bad, begin to flow. They can never interfere if they want the blog to be taken seriously. They will feel insecure and perhaps a little nauseous but if they wait it out it will work fine. It works for Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer.

A company with a good blog policy will be listening to its customers and then shaping its communications around that data. It will also create content that is both relevant and hopefully surprising. Influencers will pass along the good stuff creating the viral moment that marketers pray for. Then people in the outer circle of the influencers will also start to talk about the brand, and as they do the company has to make it very easy for its core fans to spread the word. Do not fear negativity, it is just more communication - let it roll. There should never be a barrier to communication or interactivity. Remember, it's not about technology, it's about people. Bloggers have to be about having an opinion and sharing it but never about's a two-way conversation.

Social Media

Sometimes people look at it backwards. Points 1 and 2 in this slide are wrong. As I said at the beginning of this post, we are technological beings and we are naturally immersed in technology; it can't be any other way. And you can't enforce social cultures online as there is no central "being." Facebook's "soul" is merely the millions of disparate people who are members. When Facebook goes away, as it will, those millions will migrate to the next application that allows them to socialize freely and easily.

For marketers this is a huge dilemma. In social media we create a selfless or virtual "self" - for instance, in the Facebook friends network one might see a coherent global pattern but that pattern only emerges from the activity of all its members (friends). The group or network seems to be centrally located but in fact it is nowhere to be found. No one has the slightest idea what these people do or want; they actually don't exist. The good news is that within each of any of these social network groups resides at least a couple of influencers; again, companies and brands must wait to be invited in. These are parties that can't be crashed.

Dave Allen, Director, Insights & Digital Media, Nemo Design.

The following URLs link to people, companies, articles or stories that are referred to in this post:

Grammy's Hawaii MusicTech Conference
Content Marketing = Brand New Marketing
What's Next In Media
My Facebook profile
My Twitter
My music and technology blog, Pampelmoose
Clay Shirkey's blog
Jack Myers' Web Site
Neil Perkin's Blog
Wii Fit YouTube video
Adrants Obama watch story
Obama watches web store
Wired Magazine
You may be on Facebook but the money's in the Long Tail
Social networks should be a feature not a destination
Rawkus, a social network on Ning
Selling ads on MySpace is hard work
Bob Gilbreath's Facebook ad experiment
Ad CPMs are higher in the tail
Blog reaction to Wal-Mart blogs
NYT story on Wal-Mart blog
WalMart blog

Jimmy Choo kicks off social media campaign using Foursquare

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