Hey Marketers, Stop Being Control Freaks

Social media is proving very complicated for marketers to navigate. Thus far, in the relatively short history of the medium, there is a lack of agreement on such basics as what “Social Media Marketing” actually is, how success should be measured – even whether or not marketers are welcome in social networks at all. But, with the incredible growth of social media properties marketers are eager to join in and reach consumers.

Marketers have generally entered these networks in one of two ways:

Some buy display or text ads that sit around the outside fringes of social interactions, essentially treating social media sites like any other online publishing property. Other marketers choose to participate directly in the activities these sites are designed to foster.

We believe the latter is the more powerful choice because it harnesses what’s interesting about social media – the direct connection. However, by entering into conversation, you give up a measure of control.

“Control” is a key concept here – more than one entity has found itself washed up on the rocks due to the siren lure of control. We can look at the music industry which has seen its main source of income eroded in part due to its insistence on  controlling whether, when, where and how much to charge for digital music delivery.

Then there are brands who similarly feel that engaging on a social media platform like Twitter or Facebook is to cede control of their messaging and identity. In fact the opposite is true – allowing the conversation to happen without a way to respond and engage as well as to listen is to leave your brand bound and gagged.

This was the Skittles experience when they pointed the front page of their website to a Twitter search feed that aggregated every mention of their brand. The jokers quickly showed up to graffiti all over what had become Skittles’ homepage with disparaging tweets, leaving the brand with no way to address this other than by moving the front page onto a new site.

Finally there are the social media properties themselves who have to wrestle with the choice between letting brands interact organically with their audience and finding a way to turn those activities and relationships into revenue.

For instance, my company initiated a social media engagement on behalf of one of our clients in a free-to-join online community of blogs, journals and diaries that also included some social sharing aspects. We determined that this site was a good fit for our campaign because of the audience’s existing interest in our client’s brand. We set up some profiles and, (with full disclosure of who we were, and what brand we were representing), entered into conversations and shared media with users. We were careful to make sure that nothing we were doing fell outside of the site’s terms of service agreement.

The response from the platform owners, once they figured out what was happening, was to have one of their salespeople contact us to talk about advertising opportunities on their site. When we demurred, their next move was to contact our client and threaten legal action unless they received a piece of the action. Ironically a week later our client’s sites were a “featured community” on the platform homepage due to the success of the outreach and socialisation. Our engagement with the platform ended shortly afterwards.

The underlying issue was that in exchange for paying them they were offering nothing else – not better targeting or metrics or functionality. They did offer ad space but that wasn’t what we wanted, or what would offer the most benefit to their community and our client. I’ll grant that they can do what they want with their own platform but some folks would call that a shakedown. In their ham-handed quest to control this interaction, they ended up closing the door to a potential revenue source.

The problem here is that as social media marketing becomes more focused on engagement, it becomes harder for sites to figure out how to make money from the brands and marketers on their platform. Similarly, it can be tricky for marketers to point to a direct dollar-to-response relationship here as they can with a search ad or even a banner advertisement.  In fact, for that reason, I believe that social media spending is significantly underestimated. The most effective campaigns do not involve paying a site money and are thus rarely counted.

Another example of this is what’s happening on platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook every day. Brands can engage on each of these in a meaningful way at low — or no – cost. YouTube offers paid alternatives that allow brands to have some added control over their content presentation such as branded YouTube channels so for the marketing dollar there is a clear functionality being added. Neither Facebook nor Twitter have gone to anything like this (though Facebook does allow for paid advertising with some level of interactivity like polling) but I don’t think it’s far in the future for either site.

It’s easy to forget now that these were once considerations that search engines had to navigate through in the days before paid search advertising emerged. At the beginning of the search engine era, marketing was accomplished organically and engines struggled to find ways to monetise the traffic they were sending sites – sometimes going so far as to consider removing advertisers who declined to buy display advertising from their indexes so that they no longer ranked well for certain search terms.

Part of what search engines offered to attract advertisers to their paid search platforms was access to data, and the ability to target in a variety of ways that would have been more difficult to do organically outside their walls.  Most importantly, search engines developed a way of making sure that the advertising opportunities they offered marketers aligned with the way consumers were already using their sites, rather than trying to change behaviour instead.

In a similar way, if social media sites want to find a way to monetise engagement, there needs to be some added value for the marketer. What that might mean for platforms is giving up some control over data (something that Facebook has been wrestling with) or the type of interactions that marketers are able to take part in.

Eventually search engines found the right balance between commerce, control and user-friendliness, a balance that I believe social media sites will eventually strike. There will be some false starts to be sure but there is much to be gained for all parties –marketers, social media platforms, and users – in getting the balance right. And yes, that means that advertisers and platforms both will have to let go of the need to control every element of every interaction.

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