Saturday, September 06, 2008

Social advertising: a plan for viral success, by Michael Berkley - iMedia - 29th August 2008

You may not be able to anticipate which campaigns will be a hit with consumers, but there are ways to optimize your brand's chances of being accepted in their digital gathering spots.

As traditional online advertising proves disappointing in its ability to effectively reach users of MySpace, Facebook and other social network sites, a new breed of marketing tools has emerged under the moniker of "social advertising." Unlike other forms of marketing, social advertisements allow brands to harness the immense marketing power of word-of-mouth campaigns.

There is no force more powerful in advertising than the influence of friends and family. Research supports what marketers have known all along -- all the celebrity product endorsements in the world can't impact someone's purchasing decision as strongly as the recommendation of a friend, husband or wife or business partner.

As powerful as they are, however, word-of-mouth campaigns have historically been a result of serendipitous happenstance rather than orchestrated strategy. In the offline world, brands have little control over how word-of-mouth starts, how it spreads and how it translates into sales. Advertisers can do little more than cross their fingers in hopes of generating community buzz.

That was then. In today's digital world, brands have the ability to harness the unmatched power of world-of-mouth advertising. Rather than simply hope for the best, friend and family influence can now be seeded, augmented and directed by marketers. More significantly, word-of-mouth campaigns can also be tracked and measured in the digital world.

Offline, finding and gaining the attention of potential customers is very difficult. Turning that audience into evangelizers of a brand or product is nothing short of miraculous.

In the digital arena, however, well-defined communities already exist. Social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook have become modern day town halls where people regularly gather to communicate and share mutual interests. It has been reported that 75 percent of all teenagers in the United States belong to a social network and 25 percent spend at least 2 hours a day in a social network. Social networks currently hold the highest concentration of teenage attention than any other media.

Brands can be welcomed into these communities... but only if they are perceived as being authentic and providing compelling entertainment or utility to the community.

For example, to reach social network users, Converse included an authentic social networking component to its "Open Gym" campaign. The sportswear giant organized real-world basketball competitions for inner-city youth and used Facebook as an online "meeting place" for participants. The kids went to Facebook to learn about Open Gym games in their communities, to organize new games, play virtual basketball and share videos and pictures of their activities with other players. Converse was accepted into the social network community because it offered real value and was perceived as playing a role beyond simply pushing product.

Authenticity goes beyond content. It also refers to the method of message delivery. Unsolicited advertisements such as banner ads and pop-ups have proven to be ineffective in social network environments because of their obtrusive nature. In their place, a new category of social network-friendly marketing tools called "social advertisements" has begun to emerge.

Social advertisements are opt-in vehicles for brands that allow them to be not only tolerated but actually invited into the online community. They are typically web-based mini-applications that gain consumer attention and spread from friend to friend. Social advertisements are easily embedded onto individuals' home pages and public profile pages. Their focus is to entertain (games, videos), provide utility (information, data) or stimulate communication within the group (chat, message boards, wikis) rather than overtly push a product or service. Of course, the brand messaging is always present. Social advertisements can create vibrant sub-communities around specific entertainment properties, such as a musician or band, sports team, TV show, movie or, in fact, the brand itself.

As one example of available social advertising techniques, Sony Music uses my company's SplashCast tool to connect its artists with users of MySpace and other social network sites. The tool acts as a mini TV-style player that allows the company to distribute a dynamic stream of videos, pictures, text and other digital content. One Sony "Splashcast" stream might be dedicated to its hip-hop artist Chris Brown and another to Britney Spears. Fans might first find the stream on the artist's own website, but since the widget can be easily embedded into any personal page on the web, it quickly spreads from fan to fan. Sony easily updates all of its streams with fresh content whenever it wants.

Different channels allow Sony to distribute and organize various kinds of digital content as it sees fit. One channel may be dedicated to the artist's latest music video while another may be his personal blog. The company also uses two-way communications capabilities to allow users to upload and share additional content. With Chris Brown, for instance, there is a channel dedicated to fan chat and another for pictures that fans want to share with other fans. The result is an online community made up of users from various internet locations that form and regularly meet around the brand's social advertisements!

The above illustration highlights a critical point: key to social advertising is the concept that brands are invited into and distributed by those within the online community (word of mouth). This is very different from conventional advertising, such as banner ads and pop-ups, where the brand is being forced upon consumers. Some social advertising tools not only push content out to receptive audiences but also allow users to upload and share content with each other. The result is a tool that acts as a brand-sponsored, online water cooler: a place where people gather to share mutual interests.

With social advertisements, brands have the ability to accelerate the adoption process. Using conventional media buying methods, they can juice up distribution of their application by increasing its visibility among target consumers. A marketing widget, for example, can be placed on relevant websites or distributed within Google AdSense. Traditional marketing strategies such as PR and print ads can further heighten visibility and interest in the application.

Unlike offline word-of-mouth campaigns that can take unexpected and unwanted directions, social advertising keeps the power of control in the hands of the brand. For instance, social advertising tools can usually "blacklist" inappropriate websites from embedding the social ad or widget. Some tools that employ features such as image uploading or chat allow those in charge to pick and choose content they deem appropriate and to moderate conversations that take place within their distributed communities.

Tracking and measuring
Traditional word-of-mouth marketing is as hard to monitor as it is to control. A good social advertisement, however, will provide reports on how far the campaign has spread, in which particular social networks it has taken hold, who's viewing it and who's distributing it. Brands can even review user conversations to assess customer reaction to new products and to better understand customer needs. Ultimately, these tools can measure their effectiveness in swaying purchasing decisions. A review of user chat, for instance, may reveal conversations directly related to purchasing decisions. A close parallel between sales and the social advertisements' viewing/sharing can be an indicator of the advertisement's success.

Word-of-mouth advertising is the most powerful strategy a marketer could hope to employ. Now, thanks to emerging social advertising technologies, it is also a viable reality. Brands can create exciting entertainment experiences or sponsor third-party entertainment content. Either way, harnessing the power of social advertising online is critical for those brands trying to reach teens and young adults.

Michael Berkley is the CEO of SplashCast Media.

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