Ted McConnell, Procter & Gamble’s GM for interactive marketing and innovation, sent marketing bloggers into a bit of a tizzy when he suggested social media was not true media. Speaking at an Nov. 15 event put on by the Ad Club of Cincinnati, McConnell said:
I think when we call it ‘consumer-generated media,’ we’re being predatory. Who said this is media? Media is something you can buy and sell. Media contains inventory. Media contains blank spaces. Consumers weren’t trying to generate media. They were trying to talk to somebody. So it just seems a bit arrogant… We hijack their own conversations, their own thoughts and feelings, and try to monetize it
McConnell’s money quote was this: “What in heaven’s name made you think you could monetize the real estate in which somebody is breaking up with their girlfriend?”
Now, Procter & Gamble is the largest advertiser in the world. TNS pegs P&G’s first-half media spend at $1.49 billion. So if their head interactive guy thinks social networks are a bad place to be, well, that’s bad news for ad reps at Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, Orkut, etc.
Much of the hand-wringing over McConnell’s pronouncement, both pro and con, focused on whether he was correct in his characterization of the content of social networks as something other than media. But what’s especially interesting is McConnell’s idea that advertisements on social media necessarily interrupt conversations.By that way of thinking, an ad on a Facebook page is as undesirable as, say, having to sit through audio ads in the midst of a phone conversation.
But ads on Facebook don’t intrude per se on the flow of conversation. They are found typically in the right column of a page, and are mapped to a users’ location and interests, and they don’t blare sound or stream video. McConnell’s hypothetical user who is on Facebook breaking up with his girlfriend (v. tacky, btw) can consummate the breakup without significant interruption from advertising. In many ways, it would be similar to a real-world breakup. In a restaurant, bar or coffee-shop one is surrounded by brand images that one sees without feeling interrupted or targeted. The same is true for the urban landscape and the interior of dwellings. For many people, finding a logo-free break-up location might take some doing.
What McConnell means by “predatory” could be what ensues after the breakup: the user resets his status to ‘single’ and instead of seeing ads for romantic weekend getaways and engagement rings, he sees ads for local singles nights and online dating services. This is arguably unfortunate, but certainly not more so than airline ads contextually pulled to accompany an article about a plane crash, or diet ads accompanying an article about eating disorders. In an automated, data-driven environment, these things happen.
This is not to say that McConnell is incorrect in thinking that the social networking environment is too intimate to make an effective marketing platform, but he is a bit off when he says there aren’t “blank spaces.” Social networks are interactive, but those interactions are diffused over a templated virtual space that has room to spare for advertising inventory. And many social networkers browse their sites in much the same way they would look at an online portal — scrolling though photos, reading news items, taking quizzes, playing casual games. It’s not all conversation. The difference is, your social network knows what music you listen to, what you watch on TV, where your friends live, if you’re straight or gay, where you work and how much education you have — and can anonyomize those data points and use them to serve advertising. Perhaps social networks can’t be monetized in a way that supports their stratospheric market valuations, but it’s hard to believe that they are less effective ad vehicles than a local news site or a niche topic site.
Photo credit, Zen