Are you offended? Do you think it's up to me to earn--rather than pay for--your goodwill and recommendations? Is the trust of your friends is worth more than a couple of pennies?
That's okay, I agree with you, which is why "in stream" Social Media advertising is about as bad an idea as I've heard since "Social Media" entered marketers' vocabulary. I would not and am not recommending this ad tactic to clients, because I am concerned it could harm brands, increase complaints about advertising ethics, and be a terribly ineffective use of marketing dollars.
Of course, that's not to say that encouraging people to say kind things about our brands isn't vitally important in our newly social world. But let's recognize the cardinal importance of authenticity in Social Media and the Grand Canyon-sized chasm in authenticity that separates paying for Social Media buzz and earning it. Marketers have a wide variety of tools available to them to spark positive sentiment in Social Media, the laziest and most dangerous of which is "in stream" advertising.
The idea behind "in stream" advertising is that you are a media mogul. Yes you! In the age of Social Media, each of us is a mini publisher/broadcaster with our own readers/viewers. Your and my reach may not equal the New York Times or ABC, but the idea behind Social Media in-stream ads is that the eyeballs we command are worth no less than those controlled by big media conglomerates.
Of course, those aren't eyeballs; they're friends, peers, and family members. To those who believe in in-stream advertising, that's the holy grail--our friends trust us, and so a product we promote in our Facebook or Twitter status updates comes with built-in attention and authenticity.
But is that really the way it works if the brand is paying for the mentions? Is that authentic? Are you authentic if you engage in this sort of activity?!? How many times can you spam your friends before they start unfriending you, not just on Social Networks but also in real life? Which brings me to wonder who, exactly, would do this to their own friends?
The answer is that, contrary to advertisers' belief they are buying the authenticity that comes from one's friendships with others, the kind of people who prostitute their status updates aren't doing so to friends but to strangers. Since people with larger networks can earn more in-stream ad dollars, this encourages participants to amass "friends" by any means possible.
At best, these in-stream Social Media ad networks encourage people to spam friends, and at worst they encourage spammers to create spam profiles to disseminate spam to wide networks of strangers. (Any ad technique that requires the word "spam" to be used three times in a one-sentence description is clearly on very thin ice.)
And as the cherry on top of this spam sundae, this sort of advertising is unethical unless the people who get paid to post advertising reveal it as advertising. Failing to disclose one is being paid to promote a product is a violation of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA)'s ethics code.
So, what sort of brand would engage in this sort of flawed, dangerous, and dubious advertising technique? Apparently (and disappointingly), brands are lining up. StatusPlug, a new network for spammy Facebook updates, has not revealed any clients as of yet, but TwittAd is bragging about their Land Rover campaign and the other brands who are in discussions for Twitter ads.
In the AdAge article, the CEO of TwittAd says, "We were worried it would be considered spam, but we didn't get a single complaint [about Land Rover]... What that tells me is that our connectors have influence." Funny, what this tells me is that it is easier to unfollow a spammy tweeter than to track down and complain to the spammy Twitter network that paid him or her to spam.
It is easy to see the value (or lack thereof) that TwittAd offers--check out the list of sponsorable profiles on their site. For a mere 58 cents you can sponsor angelguy1's Twitter account; over half of his tweets to date have been about getting paid for advertising in his Twitter feed, which is probably why he has just 14 followers. And for just $918, you can sponsor the misspelled, fraudulent "Official Joe Jonas Brothers" Twitter account, @JoesephJonas. With this sort of quality and authenticity, how could brands possibly lose?
While it's disheartening to see brands jump at the chance to pay for Social Media profile and update advertising, there are many brands who are taking a better route. For example, Ford has recruited 100 "agents" who will be given the new Ford Fiesta to test drive for six months. It is hoped they'll love the car and will share that excitement with their wide social networks. And General Mills has created MyBlogSpark, a network of blogging mothers who will be provided with General Mills product samples to review.
Even these efforts have been the subject of some criticism. For example, the General Mills network requires bloggers to contact the company before posting negative sentiment, which has caused some to question if General Mills is exercising "prior review" and if bloggers will have free rein to say what they want. (A General Mills spokesperson assured Adweek that those in the blogger network "are free to write anything they'd like.") Also, Adweek found a half dozen product review posts that didn't disclose the relationship with General Mills as required.
Time will tell if Ford and General Mills generate the desired success from their campaigns, but it is hard to find fault in their carefully conceived and executed strategies for developing authentic positive buzz in Social Media. Yes, it is more expensive to launch a buzz-sparking campaign of two-way dialog with consumers than it is to buy in-stream ads, but the positive difference in authenticity, transparency, and influence is absolutely worth it.
Of course, there is an even better and more organic way to develop positive sentiment in Social Media: Focus obsessively on having your product or service create a great, memorable, emotional, and brag-worthy experience for consumers.
A report on Social Media sentiment that I received today from Techrigy.com notes that Disney garnered a great deal of positive sentiment last week in Social Media. They didn't buy in-stream ads and they didn't give away free vacations; instead, Disney did what Disney does best--create positive consumer experiences. The favorable buzz generated last week came from things like people posting their fun Disney World vacation pix on Flickr, travel bloggers sharing a new Disney World deal, and people praising Disney for planting 2.7 million trees for Earth Day.
Inventor Edwin Land once said, "Marketing is what you do when your product is no good." As a marketer, I clearly don't agree with that, but the thinking behind that statement is more true today than it was decades ago when Land famously uttered those words. The better your product or service, more memorable the experience, and stronger the bonds with consumers, the less a brand needs to even consider paying people to spam their friends!