Social Advertising: A New Dawn for Publishers?

©IDG Communications, Inc. Photo contributed by Matthew Mikaelian.

As we slowly emerge from one of our worst-ever recessions, where even the online juggernaut slowed to anemic growth in 2009, publishers are confronted with the fact that print advertising will continue to decline and online growth cannot make up the shortfall. Media companies remain under ever-increasing price and performance pressure by marketers and face threats from ad and demand side networks. So it’s hard to see where publishers can find hope and revenue growth.

As IDG looked for revenue growth last year, it decided to move aggressively into the social media space. This was not a wild roll of the dice. There was a lot of supporting research from internal and external sources. Forrester’s technographics study confirmed our suspicions that technology decision makers (IDG’s audience coveted by marketers) were actively engaged in social networks and, more importantly, were making business decisions based on those engagements and exchanges of information.

In March 2009, we formally launched IDG Amplify services, a suite of ad products that turned banners from one-way shouting matches into an opportunity for a dialogue between consumer and vendor. Between March and August 2009, I delivered more than 100 social media presentations to clients and prospects. Quite literally, the demand for insight and ideas was overwhelming. Clients were desperate to understand how to participate in Facebook, with its 300 million unique visitors. They wanted to know what Twitter represents for marketers and whether or not it is a passing fad. Could they get involved in social media marketing without losing control of the brand message?

Fast forward almost 12 months, and Facebook now has 350 million uniques, 8 billion minutes spent on the site each day, and Twitter in January 2010 processed 1 billion tweets. That is 16 times more than what Twitter handled in January 2009. So the question about fads has clearly been answered. But how do these statistics offer any hope for publishers? Since we launched IDG Amplify services a year ago, we have sold a lot of social advertising campaigns and, just as important, we have learned a lot.

Every technology marketer is excited about social media because of both the statistics and what we can learn about visitors. eMarketer reports that 90% of consumers rely on recommendations from people they trust, and 70% trust the opinions of others posted online compared to 36% who trust banners. Add to the mix that 56% of social network users have friended or follow a brand, and you have what should seem like the perfect environment for marketers.

But the advertising growth numbers tell a different story. Social media advertising in Facebook, MySpace and other social networks is projected to reach $1.4 billion next year, but that is up just a few hundred million from this year. In this market, that is decent growth, but what’s holding back significant advertising growth around social media? Users have made it clear that they don’t like seeing ads for cars or technology products while reviewing their family’s holiday photos on Facebook. Marketers also have legitimate concerns about ads appearing alongside highly inappropriate content and the lack of engagement with users.

So this brings me back to IDG Amplify and why we are bullish about social marketing for all publishers. When we serve contextually relevant ads and bring in the social Web as part of the message, we see stunning results. In the latest version of IDG Amplify, in one program, we ran ads in notebook review sections, incorporated comments from users from the social Web about the notebook products, and allowed users to share parts of the ad with their social streams (see example here). All of this happens dynamically and within a standard Interactive Advertising Bureau ad unit.

This treatment has shown fascinating engagement results: For some social ads, dwell times average 63 seconds and peak at 82 seconds. For other units, click-through rates range from .024% to .033%, which is two to three times greater than traditional ads. And we see readers engaging with the ads before the traditional click, which means that they are finding more value in the ads themselves. We know about the connection with brands because people are choosing to follow/friend brands and amplify the message within their own social networks. These ad units are simply driving deeper reader interactions than traditional online and print advertising. When IDG serves up contextually relevant and highly social advertising, we are able to offer both prospects and marketers a new and enhanced experience.

Our experience shows that media brands can be the starting point for social marketing complemented by social networks, and not the other way around. For decades, media companies have established a bond with their readers based on quality and relevant editorial, design and photography. What better place to encourage conversations between readers and marketers than in a trusted site? Readers can comment within the brand and, if they want, share with their social networks. Social marketing is not just a new coat of paint for the Web. It is a door opener for marketers and agencies. Once the door is open, there are major new revenue opportunities for services around campaign development and management.

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