Consumer products company Procter & Gamble (P&G) deserves credit for trying to use social networks for marketing its brands, though questions remain about the degree of success it has had. Dhruv Tanwar reports
Consumer products company Procter & Gamble (P&G) deserves credit for trying to use social networks for marketing its brands. Though questions remain about the degree of success it has had with campaigns on Facebook, its attempts to explore the high-traffic opportunity as a marketing platform have generated varied responses within in the marketing fraternity.
Social networks have grown for a multitude of reasons, with the common thread being interacting with people. While MySpace, Orkut and Friendster came about as a great way to stay in touch with friends and possibly find long lost ones again, or meet new people and share ideas, LinkedIn is more of a professional network leveraged by entrepreneurs and professionals alike who use the network to hire or outsource, besides explore opportunities. Flickr, on the other hand, works as a simple tool for sharing photos.
Online social networks create participative social spaces online, as against using the internet for search. They form communities based on likes, dislikes, interests, etc. that are the binding factor, which thrive in the online environment on account of a lack of the traditional barriers to communication, mainly time and space. As a marketing tool, social networks empower word-of-mouth and viral marketing. They are more suited, typically, for spreading the marketing message, as opposed to driving traffic and sales.
Also, unlike typical netizens, social networkers have different expectations of interaction and privacy. They have predefined rules about what is private, and what is public information. And they can quickly organise themselves into groups dedicated for, or against, a cause. This calls for marketers to respect their target audience as people, something of a foreign concept when it comes to traditional marketing.
A couple of days ago, The New York Times carried a report by Randall Stross, who tried to ascertain the hurdles that marketers face while advertising on social networks.
P&G earlier ran a campaign entitled "America's Favorite Stains" on Facebook that asked for members' ideas, and recently displayed 18 submissions. Quoting independent experts on web advertising, the report said there was a "myriad of difficulties" in making brand advertising work on social networking sites, since members of the networks come online to spend time with friends, and not brands.
Banner ads on the member's home page were basically ignored, and advertisers had to usually resort to the usual gimmicks of costly creative material or prize contests to get members to visit pages dedicated to their products.
The report also cited research by technology research firm IDC, which found that just about three per cent of American internet users would consider allowing publishers to use their friends for advertising. IDC's report then goes on to deem social advertising "stillborn", indicating that the advertising based model to convert traffic into revenue was struggling as compared to search advertising.
Search advertising, says the report, catches people in a buying mood, while sites relying on user-generated content are still experimenting on the high-traffic, low revenue ad business. Stross says that privately held Facebook does not disclose financial or other information that would allow an eduacted guess about its ad sales scenario, while P&G allows the social networking site to talk only about a single P&G promotion, the one for Crest Whitestrips, which is also presumed to be its most successful to date.
The Crest Whitestrips promotion started in fall 2006, with P&G inviting Facebook members in 20 college campus networks to become Crest Whitestrips "fans" on the product's Facebook Page. Facebook says it attracted 14,000 fans.
However, sceptics of the success of the campaign point out that P&G gave away freebies such as movie screenings and sponsored Def Jam concerts. Stross' report says that a similar result could have been simulated by any other brand, since the criteria for becoming a "fan" was a single click, and more so because of the extensive market layout on the freebies. Around 4,000 of the 14,000 "fans" are reported to have left the fan club.
Another problem the report looks at is that companies are typically not in favour of the idea of their brand sharing online space with user generated content that is unfiltered, a fact corroborated by IDC's report termed that user generated content as "low-quality, brand-unsafe inventory."
In the concluding remarks, the New York Times report says brand advertisers on Facebook could try two new approaches - one being more intrusive and not having a positive outcome, and the other where they create genuinely entertaining commercials, by "spend ungodly sums to do so."
The report has created some ripples online, with a host of other reports commenting on the original piece.
One report suggested that the number of fans a brand has on Facebook is not a credible benchmark of the success of social media advertising, mainly since search engine advertising is more relevant than social media advertising. It went on to say that social media advertising suffers with "user blindness", the reason for abysmal click through rates.
Another report on mashable.com gave pointers to learning from search advertising and movie trailers, saying that relevance was not enough by itself, and needed to be supported by timing. It said Facebook needed to find ways to convince users to seek advertising, with relevance, timing, and desire being three key elements for advertising on the site to be effective.
Yet another piece by Kara Swisher on allthingsd.com termed the New York Times article as the "high-water mark of the Facebook-Is-Dead theme". She said that the ad industry would need to get used to a very different paradigm to reach young consumers, where the message will have to be drastically changed in order to work. She said that the ad industry would have to invent new kinds of ad formats and new means of engagement.
Writing on the marketingpilgrim.com , Joe Hall said that P&G's efforts are failing on social media because they "aren't being social". He says "brands need to engage with real conversations, using real spokes people that are able to make personable connections with their target audience", pointing out that out-of-date advertising strategies are irrelevant in social media. Advertising on social media would continue to be ignored, Hall says, unless brands become more social, though he does not reveal how, while inviting P&G to call him for some ideas.
Other sites said Facebook should pursue the sponsorship route, allowing the "best parts" of the site to be "brought to you by…" brands, and applications to be supported by brand companies. IDC reportedly suggested in its report that advertising on social media needs to be non-obtrusive, and it would work if social networking services "become more like portals, such as Yahoo! or MSN, and they will come closer to the audience reach of the top services."
Still not clear
Clearly, the jury is still out on this one, and no one seems to have a clear plan on how to move forward with advertising on social media.
For one, it is forcing marketers to accept that the traditional ways of engagement do not hold good on online social networks, and therefore, is forcing them to think about the opportunity, and all of its complexities.
Maybe, one of these days, there would be an 'aha!' moment for someone - P&G perhaps - after having gained some first hand experience. The sideline audience would then jump in, as if on cue, sending valuations of Facebook and other social networking sites through the roof. But till that happens, no one would likely hold their breath.