Social Media's Antisocial Behavior

July 5, 2012

movie poster from Shallow HalIn the Farrelly brothers 2001 romantic comedy "Shallow Hal," Jack Black plays a superficial man who's hypnotized by Tony Robbins into "seeing" people — including a 300-pound love interest named Rosemary — through their inner beauty instead of what they actually look like. Rosemary, as Hal sees her, is played by a slim Gwyneth Paltrow, and Hal's "vision" becomes the premise for some humorous sight gags. The basis of the film is a metaphor for any situation where self-deception blinds one from reality, regardless of the cause.

Take Madison Avenue and social media, for example. Social media is entirely about being social, but because a lot of people want to be social, the ad agency world assumes that those big numbers equate to a mass market. It doesn't. It's really just Jack Black dating Gwyneth Paltrow wearing a fat suit.

"The mass market is no longer," according to author and marketing guru Seth Godin. This statement is a stumbling block for those desperate for a replacement, because the lack of one isn't acceptable. In the meantime, we still force mass market strategies and tactics, because that's all we've got.

Every mass marketing professional views social applications with eyes bulging over the impressive numbers they generate (Facebook is approaching 1 billion users worldwide). For traditional media companies using Twitter, therefore, it means accquiring ever bigger numbers of followers. For Facebook, it means bigger numbers of fans or "Likes." Traditional media companies have the clout to "drive" those numbers northward, but to what end? Selling social media only from a numbers perspective has resulted in confusion, mixed reviews, and frustration for the people who really matter, the advertisers.

Although it's currently in new negotiations with the company, General Motors dropped its Facebook advertising a couple of months ago in a complaint over weak or questionable results despite the enormous resources it was spending there. Pulling their advertising just before Facebook's IPO was seen as an especially injurious move, but GM was right to challenge its own expenses and ROI. Are GM's actions reflective of a broader sense of questioning in the world of big advertisers? I think so, and it's only going to accelerate.

Business Insider's Henry Blodget thinks the problem with social media and advertising is simple. "In contrast to search," he writes, "social networking advertising is like hanging signs on the walls of a house during a party and sending sales reps to mingle with the crowd."

Yes, you can target which parties you pay to hang your signs on the walls of.
Yes, you can make those signs appealing to those at the party.
But the fact remains that the people at the party, who are sharing stories and photos and news and gossip, are not at the party because they want to buy something.
They're at the party because they want to socialize.
And any time you do more than passively hang in the background at the party, they will likely be annoyed by your intrusion. And, annoyed or not, when they do notice your ads, their reaction will most likely be, "Cool--if I ever decide to buy a car/boat/stereo/meal/flowers/bull-whip, maybe I'll look at that kind." Then they'll go right back to their party.

two Tupperware professorsAccording to the New York Times, multi-level marketing is a $30 billion a year industry, so at least some people like to buy things at parties. Tupperware, the granddaddy of them all, even calls the events "parties," and Tupperware is huge! Every 2.5 seconds, a Tupperware party is being hosted somewhere in the world. According to a couple of Tupperware aficionados from Valparaiso University, party hosts are even instructed to be social.

A cardinal rule of Tupperware parties: warm your guests up; give them time to get to know each other, to socialize. It should also go without saying that a good "sell" should never happen on an empty stomach.

...friends are there to see and buy your wares. Many are just there, because they don't want to be rude to the friend hosting the affair and have no intention to buy, but they'll still pay attention, and who knows?

This is, of course, much different than the parties that Blodget describes. After all, people attend Tupperware parties to buy something or to at least help their friends out, and who knows? Perhaps we'll see some of this kind of direct selling via some or all forms of social media downstream. It's just not here yet, so Blodget's criticism is valid.

David JohnsonOthers feel a similar disenchantment with advertising on social media. One is David Johnson, a Consultant with Sextant Media, journalism professor at American University, and long time blogger and colleague of mine. Via Facebook, he told me that marketing on social media is inherently antisocial behavior:

Unless requested or genuine, butting into someone's conversation to blurt out a suggestion is not generally considered welcome, and few actually consider that.

I feel it's important to remember that Facebook was initially conceived for students. Those with dot-edu email addresses were the only ones allowed, so much of the behavior that adults and businesses complain about on social media were actually the types of behavior that the platforms were designed and intended for.

I equate marketing on social media to the Lyndon Larouche speaker cars that drive down the streets and shout out over loudspeakers, or someone butting into my phone conversation with my relatives on the party line, or a sandwich board walking through my dining room during an after dinner talk.

It's hard not to agree with David, because that's what mass marketing concepts do to the conversation that is Facebook.

So how does one sell himself at a party? Firstly, you have to be invited. Then, follow a few simple rules: Act like a guest. Don't be a jerk. Don't demand everybody's attention, over and over and over again. Be interesting. Don't hog the attention. Listen and interact. Don't be rude. Don't interrupt others. Don't drink too much. Don't ignore people, manipulate people or, worst of all, don't scream in their face. Don't tease or scare or bully. If you don't really care, at least pretend you do. Respect your host. Don't do anything you wouldn't want somebody to do to you. Above all, don't be overly impressed with yourself. It's not about you; it's about the group.

If you behave like that, you know what? People will like to be around you, and most importantly, they'll remember you and invite you back.

This is why I'm high on Facebook's "sponsored stories" concept. Early evidence appears hopeful. Last month, TechCrunch published a remarkably favorable piece about these ads titled "They Work! Facebook Mobile Ads Are Clicked 13X More, Earn 11X More Money Than Its Desktop Ads." The key findings of research that undergirds the article's thesis are that the return for Facebook on running what it calls "sponsored stories" is much greater on mobile devices than on desktops.

The reason these work so well is that they are a part of users' walls, but they don't flash, blink, twirl or shout, nor do they necessarily carry an advertiser's "message." Like every other Facebook link, there's a headline, a couple of sentences, and a link to more. The ads are treated like content, and while they may not be invited, they're not in the least intrusive. Just as the user has the option to follow a friend's link, the same applies here. In other words, the ads are content, just like anybody else's. And because they're content, they play especially well on mobile devices.

Research reveals Facebook's mobile ads 'work'

These "sponsored stories" are being credited by some analysts as the catalyst for a more favorable turn in Facebook's stock price in mid-June. After blowing it more than once, the thinking goes, Facebook has finally gotten the social advertising thing right.

I'll add my voice to those who think Facebook is on to something here, and I also think it's a great lesson for local media companies online. Dave Winer suggests, "Twitter is a dress rehearsal for the news system of the future." In the same context, Dave also writes that "On the net, your feed is you," which is indicative of the simplicity required to effectively communicate ideas online and especially via small, handheld devices.

This means that whatever's in that stream — that "feed" — is what matters, so the only viable advertising mechanism is something that's included, not something that interrupts. If the user wants more information on the item, she can click through, just like any other item in the feed. This means that advertising is content in the stream, which gives the added bonus to advertisers of a significant boost in the world of search engine optimization.

Facebook is providing the prototype, and I believe this will become much more common in the world of real time flows and streams.

We must accept that display advertising is rapidly becoming a relic of older days, and that even the tried and true concept of interrupting content with 30-second ads is far too much of an annoyance to ever be the standard for online advertising. I've been saying for 10 years that advertising is content in the world of Media 2.0 and that the world of content is no longer the sole purview of media companies.

In this way, Silicon Valley is a long way from Madison Avenue, just like Shallow Hal's Rosemary is a long way from Gwenyth Paltrow.