You are probably aware that recently the discussion on pay-per-post ignited again. There is a fascinating need to keep things separate - social media and earnings. Yet, there are many who are working with social media to make a living.
For many years I curated the readers' network of Fast Company magazine. With help - at some point we even had a nice group of volunteers, then life separated us - I put together around 100 free events. It was a lot of work. If you have organized events you know it is. Sometimes we were lucky enough to get a food sponsor. The venue was always donated - I'm talking conference rooms at Universities, Steelcase showrooms, ING Direct Cafe' - all nice places.
All events were free to attendees - they actually cost the work of those who put them together. There was this sense that charging for attending would be wrong. It was a social network, after all. It needed to remain pure. That was then. Social media is becoming more main stream now. Yet, we seem to be bumping against that same issue.
I'm left wondering then, what is the model that will not get people up in arms? What can sustain social media? I thought of asking my friend Alan Wolk to help me see the issue from where he sits - the Toad's Stool.
In a recent conversation around the sanctity of social media at Amber Naslund's blog, you distilled the issues into three fundamental questions: (1) sponsorship worth; (2) audience; (3) credibility. To me these seem to be also the timeless principles that marketers and advertising professionals have followed or should be following? What changed with social media?
Which is the problem.
Most of the Kool-Aid Drinkers have very little sense of history-- either they’re very young or they’ve never really worked in advertising or marketing. They never see shades of gray-- the whole world is black and white. That holds true on both sides.
So this became either a tragedy of biblical proportions as bloggers sold their souls to evil K-Mart or discovered the Northwest Passage to successful blog monetization.
What really happened was neither epic nor brilliant.
A company that used to called “Pay For Post” rebranded itself as IZEO and decided that using the euphemism “Sponsored Content” was far more palatable than “Pay for Post”
Then they found a bunch of bloggers, who, in the name of “experimenting” “proving that I am truly famous beyond this little bubble” or some combination thereof, were willing to make a big deal out of a rather uninventive online sales promotion event for just $500.
Now given that a quarter page in the local Pennysaver goes for around $500, I’d say KMart and IZEO made out like bandits. Not only did they get a case study, they also got a tremendous amount of buzz with the sort of people (the primarily upscale crew who read social media blogs) who may not even have been aware that KMart was still in business. And while most of the sites chosen made little sense from a demographic standpoint, for $500, if they reached 3 people, it was money well spent.
For the bloggers however, I’m guessing they lost more readers than they gained, giving them a net negative ROI. (And I’m basing that on the assumption that they did not gain any new readers, but lost a handful of formerly loyal ones and have lots of negative fallout to deal with.)
But is it a “model for blog monetization?”
Not in the slightest.
It’s a one-trick pony that got a lot of attention because it was new and controversial. If Pay-per-Post were to start to become commonplace, people would just stop paying attention. First to the posts and then, ultimately to the blogger him or herself. There are just too many other blogs out there putting out similar “how to do social media 101” content where the reader doesn’t have to wade through paid posts.
In addition, most marketing blogs are too niche to attract any sort of real audience. (Compared to sites like PerezHilton, HuffPo or even Gawker, which get millions of readers weekly.) So using marketing blogs to promote mainstream companies and sites doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Promoting an app like Twirl or Joost for the iPhone is far more logical, but that’s a whole other post-in-the-making.
What in your experience is working or going to work as an advertising model in social media?
Alan: I think, funny enough, that sponsored content is going to be what works. And by that I mean taking something that people actually want to use and making it available by sponsoring it.
Twitter may work by selling hourly sponsorships, where there’s say an Apple skin on the Twitter site from 7 to 11 AM every weekday and when you first log in you get a tweet-ad from Apple.
It can be as basic as Pizza Hut building a Facebook app that lets you order a pizza without ever leaving Facebook (something they’ve actually done.) But it has to be something that proves to be a useful tool for your audience, that’s about them and their needs, not about you.
You shared your take on brands in social media in the series your brand is not my friend. Would you like to give a couple of examples of what steps you would recommend?
Alan: Well, building on the example above, I think that brands who are not “Prom King Brands” (the dozen or so well-known brands like Apple and Nike that have badge value, e.g. someone would unironically wear their logo on a cap or t-shirt-- plus entertainment brands and sports teams) that those non-Prom King brands need to find a way to provide something of value to their customers and to gradually get people talking about them that way.
So first step is seeing what your opportunity is: if you are a spice manufacturer, maybe you’re aware that there’s
an active community of crock pot users. And so you work with someone who actually does cooking sites to set up something for crock pot users- a recipe file, a recipe of the day-- maybe you even do a bit more research and learn that they’re big with working moms who like being able to have a hot meal waiting when they come home. And so your recipes are all about meals kids will eat, not super gourmet stuff. (I’m thinking that you could probably come up with something a lot more unique than a recipe file, but for purposes of this example, let’s run with it.)
And the most important thing here is that you need to get out of your own way: don’t try and “capture names.” Don’t insert your brand into the recipe. Those are buzz kills and they do more harm than good in the long term.
Once that’s established, you can start doing things like providing coupons to users, links to mail ordering your products, even start a blog. But the key thing is not to push, not to come off as overly aggressive. Yes, you are selling something, but you are never the sleazy salesperson.
Why? Because this is social media and
people are here to socialize- not hear sales pitches. The more unobtrusive you can make yours, the more that indicates to your audience that you “get” them, the better off you are.
What's next? What do you see in the future of marketing as more and more companies (and brands) venture into the social media waters?
Alan: The biggest question in my mind is
how big brands will play in social media.
Right now, much of social media is graspable because it’s still in its nascency. But as it grows, it becomes rather unwieldy. Take blog comments, for instance. Who is going to read through 647 comments on a blog? No one. So The New York Times is now handling this by having the first page of comments you see be “Editor’s Choice” - an interesting decision because it reintroduces the role of the all-powerful editor-as-gatekeeper, which was one of the walls that Web 2.0 knocked down.
So we’re going to see a whole lot of chaos before we see some order restored and larger communities formed. And I think people like larger communities, like things like Facebook, because everyone they know is (or could be) on there versus a smaller, more private network. And it’s important to remember too that social media is a behavior, not a collection of web sites. It’s the ability to provide input into a site, via a comment, a rating or an upload. So no matter what happens to Twitter or Facebook, the behavior is not going away.
But circling back to your original question, I think we’re going to see a lot of brands behaving badly in social media.
They’ll behave badly- or foolishly- because they can’t fathom that the one-way conversation is over and that consumers aren’t fascinated by what they have to say.
And they’ll behave badly because
they’ll be advised by bad social media strategists, the ones who focus on quantity over quality, and by ad agencies who still see the clever punch line and the name capture as their most important goals.
Some will get it though, either on
their own or with a wise hand to guide them. They’ll realize that it’s a commitment to more than just responding to blog comments in a timely manner and keeping a Twitter account. That it’s about making the customer front and center of whatever you do and of giving them products and services that they’ll want to tell other people about.
Those are the companies that are going to be shaping our future. At least in social media.