Guest Commentary: A Reflux-Free Guide to Utilizing Social Media

May 17, 2009  •  Post A Comment

What you need to know about social media: Social media is dead. It’s a boom time for social media. Online ads rule. Online ads don’t work. Twitter is hot. Twitter is passé.
Marketers peddling media properties find the confusing and contradictory headlines an invitation to reach for the Maalox or tune out the topic altogether.
The former might be a good idea, but ask the ostrich how well the latter tends to work out. Social media is too huge to ignore; we must brave the contradictions, obfuscations, buzzword compliance and speculation.
Why is social media difficult to pin down? Because this stuff works … except, of course, when it doesn’t. As with any other marketing effort, success requires skillful research, clever execution—and luck. It’s impossible to build a recyclable template or blindly co-opt anyone else’s model. (Consider Apple’s iPhone compared with Blackberry’s Storm; enough said.)
So faced with more than 75 distinct social media tools—social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, user-generated content like YouTube, blogging and micro-blogging tools like Twitter, wikis—how do marketers hedge their bets?
The first necessary steps we explain to our entertainment industry students: Understand how everything works together, prioritize, and then know what works for your audience … this month.
What’s working now? We’re excited by two developments: social networking sites’ roadblock ads and widgets.
It’s widely understood that younger audiences have gravitated to social networking. Even big studios get this: It’s common to see a major release promoted in a Facebook fan page or plastered across MySpace’s front screen.
It’s not enough to place plain ads on such sites, though. We’re browsing the Web and see flat ads for a video rental service, a bank and a punch-the-monkey game. We don’t click a single one. What’s the point? They already communicated their point; there’s nothing left to pique our interest. They’re ignorable.
Buy a one-day roadblock ad instead. As TV spots are knocked out by fast-forwarding digital video recorders and radio ads are vanquished with the push of a preset button, marketers need ads that cannot be ignored. Roadblocks serve this exact purpose.
Audiences want their social networking—Nielsen Media said these sites had a global reach of 68.4% in February and that number probably already has risen. But before they can get in, they have to click through your ad. Nothing builds awareness better.
To go beyond awareness to engagement, consider the widget, a small application that lives on a user’s profile pages. Widgets use fun or interesting content to earn persistent placement onscreen, bearing content that the marketer can change at will.
Widgets seem like a “soft sell” but, by being engaging, they can earn placement on a user’s homepage. Targets end up seeing a brand message every day, receiving a subtle but repetitive reminder. Compared to ordinary web ads, that’s powerful stuff.
Will roadblocks or widgets rule in the long term? Maybe not. But it’s not readily apparent what would supplant them, either. We’re intrigued by the possibility that it might be a mash-up of new and old technologies: Tweens are so unaccustomed to receiving snail mail that maybe direct mail pointing to an online campaign, for instance, could surge into the marketing vanguard. This could work until it doesn’t any longer.
Where did that Maalox go?
Steve Shepard is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Kevin Yamano is affiliate networks director for ClearSpring. Beginning June 4, they will conduct Really Useful Information’s online Digital Media and Technology Management program for entertainment industry professionals.

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