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07/08/2007

Facebook fandango: Flaws in the mass advertising model online?

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The list of Facebook advertising refuseniks grows with every passing hour: Vodafone, the COI and a host of other brands.

A grim hour for Facebook and social media?

On one level yes: in the short term they are going to lose revenue. But more importantly, it shows shortcomings not just in the advertising model at Facebook but how unsuitable mass advertising models and mentalities are in niche media spaces.

Brands are - rightly - being held accountable for where their money goes. Last week Panorama looked at violent videos on websites and pointed out the brands  that were advertising alongside them.

What that means is not necessarily a need to withdraw from the web, but to invest more in understanding how it works and what the networks that people are using look like.  

Lest we forget, within three years the majority of the web's new content will be created by individuals rather than organisations and social sites are growing in popularity all the time.  Any withdrawal from the social web by brands can therefore only be temporary.

Here are a handful of things that need to be challenged:

1. The "Harvesting eyeballs" mentality: We need to make sure that online advertising is not just a numbers game that ignores individuals. Buying in "blind networks" (where you buy ad space based on demographic but don't know where it will end up) is not always a bad thing, but it may sometimes be symptomatic of being desperate for people's attention but not being particularly interested in them. If you have it in mind that you must earn rather than just buy attention in networks then you're heading in the right direction...

2. Not knowing your networks: The first rule for brands on the web should be to know what their networks look like. Where are your stakeholders? What are they talking about? What content is successful? OK so there's going to be some ugly stuff there - you aren't going to want to support or otherwise engage with that , but you need to know it is there at least...

3. Big media over niche: Even within a big property like Facebook, the usefulness is about super-niche content not mass media-esque blockbusters. That's why Facebook's  banners and irritating ad-in-your-newsfeed are a bit of a shabby model.

4. Glossing over complexity: It would be nice if websites were like TV channels, if those pesky consumers would keep the number they watch down to, say, a thousand. But they don't. The media landscape, if you can call it that, is constantly shifting online. That's really why the safe option - big ad spend on high traffic sites - seems like a simple answer but means you could be missing out on a whole lot of other opportunities to engage more meaningfully.

5. Context-less advertising: What brands need are ways of fitting their ads into places where they are not surrounded by offensive material and are in fact positively complementing the content / community around them.

What Facebook needs as a business is its second moment of genius...

...Google's fortune was built on two strokes of genius: the service (a brilliant search engine) and the advertising model (contextual ads). Facebook had it's first stroke of genius - if it wants to prosper it needs another one pretty soon.  

In comparison with de-personalised ad-buying in social media, ad networks like Adify seem like a sensible approach. Advertise on big media, which you know, and their eco-system of trusted, niche publishers writing in the same space.

Marketers and media owners alike need more innovation in this vein in order to find appropriate and effective ways of advertising on the social web.

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Comments

I saw some recent statistics that 20% of all online advertising in the UK is conducted through blind networks which surprised me. This particular model is clearly delivering ROI but I agree with you that it will need to adapt to survive.

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