If you use traditional media assessment formulas to plan an ad strategy in the new world of social media, you're making a big mistake. Here's why. If you knew of a way to drive lower cost-per-conversion rates for your online advertising campaigns, while super-charging ad performance, wouldn't you tell your media buyers to adopt that method, pronto?
Advertising against social media (on blog sites or within social networks) promises far better returns than traditional online content, but many advertisers are struggling when it comes to tapping into the power of these user-generated content (UGC) networks.
Social media -- in which word-of-mouth communication reigns -- is unparalleled at building passionate networks of like-minded people, particularly in the blogosphere. Of course, the nebulous world of social media is also a thorn in advertisers' collective sides due to a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the unpredictable content it generates and the difficulty in accurately measuring its impact.
Why is social media so hard to corral and measure? One reason is that the people creating the kind of influential content that impacts consumer behavior aren't necessarily the people who claim the most eyeballs. An "influencer" may have a small audience from a numbers' standpoint but can also have a massive impact on your target customers' buying habits.
The recent Nielsen//NetRatings announcement about the new "time spent" metric underscores this issue. The industry shift away from the page view as the unrivaled metric king demonstrates that the number of hits on a website doesn't necessarily equal the most value for your advertising dollar.
Since the most influential blogs don't always have the biggest audiences, traditional online advertising models can be far off the mark when it comes to reaching the most qualified leads.
For example, an ad buy targeted to a search result is unlikely to place you in front of networks of people with a passion for the product or service you're offering. However, a blog that draws together a community of like-minded readers -- who engage in discussions and share ideas and opinions -- has the loyal audience that can significantly drive up conversion rates.
Initial research bears this out: A recent study from BlueLithium Labs compared ads on sites with UGC, and sites without such content. The ads on non-UGC sites had a 32 percent higher conversion rate; however, due to the lower cost of advertising on UGC sites, the cost-per-conversion for non-UGC sites was 58 percent higher.
Advertisers are sensing this promise. The latest research from eMarketer shows that ad spending on websites that feature UGC (like photo and video sharing) is expected to rise to $4.3 billion by 2011.
The key is for advertisers to define the kind of social media (blogs, for example) that best fits their overall brands and specific campaigns, then design an effective way to surface the content that will truly deliver from an ad perspective.
Finding the people who influence consumer behavior
Locating influencers is a tough online challenge, especially in an internet landscape characterized by traditional media, UGC, social networks and 12 million blogs in the United States alone. Popularity ranking and subjective authority evaluations of a particular website or blog fall short when you take a closer look. A blogger who is considered an authority on a given topic might hold great influence when it comes to that subject but could have less or zero influence if a new topic is introduced. Likewise, a specific web page may be "popular" but ranks very low on the influence scale on a specific topic within a certain context.
A year or so ago, online marketers were advised to listen to online conversations in order to gauge what was being said about their products. Listening will always be critical, but as social media matures as a marketing channel, zeroing in on the content to actually engage with it is becoming increasingly important for brands.
Fortunately, new technologies are making it easier to find the influencers who matter more quickly. And some marketers are finding that, when it comes to social media, simply building relationships with online opinion leaders can create marketing events that deliver measurable business impact.
Screenlife Games, a Seattle-based maker of DVD games, recently used influence-targeting technology to build awareness of the 2007 edition of its "American Idol" game, based on the TV series of the same name.
Screenlife was able to hone in on blogs most likely to attract potential buyers of the game. This was accomplished by searching for conversational phrases specific to the 2007 season, such as "Melinda is the best," that would indicate the presence of a dedicated crowd of "American Idol" fans, or fans of Screenlife games, and not just a blog that mentioned the "Idol" show once or twice.
"We're able to catch general fans of the show and focus in on specific conversations about our game," explains Tony Roscelli, Screenlife's director of consumer research. "We can find out what they like and parlay it into marketing programs."
By monitoring conversations, and understanding who is interacting with the most passionate customers and to what effect, advertisers can generate lists of niche blogs and websites they may not have been aware of, and integrate this data into their online advertising strategy.
Another example of maximizing the power of social media can be seen with Protuo.com, a provider of web-based career portfolio management services. Protuo was in search of the elusive "influencer" audience when it decided to leverage social media technology to help uncover blogs focusing on career and human resources issues.
By monitoring online conversations about recruiting and hiring strategies, the company was able to identify the bloggers most likely to draw an audience that would use Protuo's services. Protuo then invited key bloggers to review its offerings, which spurred discussion and ultimately increased traffic and Protuo.com registrations. During its influence campaign, overall traffic to Protuo.com has risen 27 percent. What's more, Protuo found that traffic from influential websites converted to registration 40 percent better than online leads generated from other sites.
Before you set out to identify the online influencers that are most important to your advertising strategy, make sure you and your team understand how social media requires a different plan of action.
1. Know your marketing goals: Be careful not to get roped into helming a social media marketing or advertising effort simply because it's trendy. Before embarking on these initiatives, take the time to understand what you want from your ad spend. How do you want creators and consumers of social media to respond to your ad efforts? What is their ideal experience? Clicking on a text link off of a blog post, or reading blog coverage of your company from a source they trust and traveling to your site via an embedded link? Figure out the answers to these questions before jumping into a social media advertising program.
2. Rethink the definition of marketing communications: If you use traditional media assessment formulas to plan an ad strategy in the new world of social media, you're making a big mistake. Social media is much more than another way to communicate with your target market; it's a way for your customers to trade information that helps them make better decisions, given that they've become somewhat hardened about marketing spin. These days, they prefer to take their cues from other consumers whom they trust. For a social media-based ad campaign to be successful, it needs to be based on authentic interactions at every stage of the customer lifecycle, not just when you're pushing messages out to them.
3. Find the influencers: You can't plan an online advertising strategy until you know how to reach an audience that's primed to hear your messages. You need to identify where the conversations that connect to your marketing goals are taking place, and who is shaping those conversations. Since influence in the social media world isn't always determined by audience size, this can lead to some interesting surprises. The process of finding influencers turns some conventional ideas about marketing upside down. Rather than first searching for advertising targets and then deciding where and when to advertise, the process begins by determining what's being said, and figuring out who is saying it.
4. See beyond the assumed customer base: Marketers need to recognize that influencers are not always the current customers for their company's products and services. They can be former customers who have become dissatisfied, they may be fans of your competitors, or they may simply have strong opinions about your market. The ability to see beyond your own customer base is an important skill for social media engagement.
5. Redefine what "advertising" means: It's not just about placing an ad anymore. For instance, companies like Protuo can use a social media engagement strategy to generate online leads (which is the objective of many paid search ad campaigns). As a result, the company was able to generate traffic that converted to action better than incoming leads from typical online advertising methods. Marketers don't necessarily associate "influencer marketing" with hard metrics, but the dense network of links that power social media conversations enables consumers reading their favorite blogs to quickly jump to the kind of content that will trigger a purchase.
6. Take a multi-pronged approach: In social media, traditional online ad placement isn't enough to engage your potential customers. Participation is a key step. Comment on the blogs of key influencers. Write your own posts in order to challenge them on important topics. Join in the conversation instead of waiting for the conversation to come to you.
Finally, a key piece of advice for any marketer who wants to stick a toe in the social media waters: If this is your first foray into a social media advertising effort, don't invest too much in the first campaign. Do it quickly, do it cheaply and change strategies if needed. The good news is that social media -- with its low cost of entry and speed of access -- lends itself well to this kind of marketing journey.