The Context of No Context

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

With all the ballyhoo surrounding social networks in recent weeks, thanks largely to the deal MySpace struck to distribute Google search ads and the me-too pact between Microsoft and Facebook, one rather basic question has gone overlooked: How well will performance ads work in these social environments? What will effective ads look like on MySpace or Facebook?

Most search marketing professionals are quick to say that they don’t have an answer to those questions. The audience delivered by these social networks is attractive for its demographic qualities, and growth rates for the top social networks makes them obvious targets for advertisers in search of eyeballs. The audiences are there; but it remains to be seen how they’ll respond to ads.

The biggest unknown appears to be that visitors to social networks aren’t in the same frame of mind as search engine users. In fact, they’re not even really in the same mindspace as visitors to most content sites, according to Josh Stylman, managing partner with search marketing firm Reprise Media.

“Search and contextual advertising reach users in very different mindsets,” Stylman says. “In the former, it’s ‘search and find’; in the latter, it’s ‘read and absorb’.” Pure search engine marketing is like a conversation in real time between the marketer and the user, over a platform from Google or Yahoo! and with SEM firms like Reprise simply facilitating the dialogue. The user is searching with an intention, and the marketer’s job is to ask very specifically if his product is what they’re looking for and then deliver them to the right spot on a Web site.

“In contextual advertising, you may have a user in that frame of mind, but they didn’t ask to see your ad; they’re not necessarily in active search mode,” he says. A visitor on the ESPN.com site reading an article about the Chicago Bulls might be interested enough to click through an ad for Bulls T-shirts and jerseys. But the ads created for that contextual environment might need to be very different, because the visitor seeing them isn’t arriving predisposed to buy and pre-qualified with an explicit interest.

“As a marketer of Bulls equipment, you might still want to create a connection with that visitor. But you might need a stronger hook than in pure search ads, because by definition you’re interrupting what they’re doing at that moment and giving them a message that they didn’t explicitly ask for.”

For this reason, Reprise usually manages contextual ad campaigns separately from pure search marketing, using different creative with different offers or calls to action, Stylman says.

And targeting the contextual message is as important as crafting it properly; advertisers and online ad agencies want as much control as they can get over where and when their ads are appearing in contextual networks. Back in the early days of performance ads, Google and Yahoo! took the position that ads placed on a Web page worked just as well as sponsored listings on a search results page. Objections from marketers changed their minds on that point pretty quickly, leading them to change pricing for ads on their networks and making it easier to manage and measure those ads separately.

The search-contextual difference doesn’t always break in favor of search. Stylman notes that in some cases, contextual ads can outperform paid search ads, particularly for marketers looking for low-impact conversions such as drawing traffic to a content site or getting visitors to download a white paper.

But incorporating social network sites into contextual ad networks adds yet another layer of sound-proofing insulation to that pure search dialogue of “You want it, I’ve got it.” Visitors to those sites aren’t looking for products or services; they’re also not really looking for information in the way they are when visiting a news, sports or travel site. They’re looking primarily for people, and most often for people they already know. They may share some interests with those people—in fact, they most likely do—but chances are they don’t share all of them.

That added level of remove from visitors’ intention swill make advertising on MySpace, Facebook, Bebo or even the community pages on YouTube an even trickier proposition than running campaigns on most content sites.

“There’s a greater leap of faith involved here than in most contextual advertising,” Stylman says. “The MySpace and Facebook deals mark a dramatic shift in how advertisers are going to create and execute contextual ads, because some type of transitive logic needs to occur: If I’m reading your page and you like the Bulls, then I must like the Bulls too.” How often that equation proves out will determine how well these social pages work as marketing real estate.

It’s been shown that at least some of those MySpace or Facebook visitors are receptive to marketing and looking for a product or service, at least some of the time. Hitwise data finds that during the last week of August, Myspace sent more traffic to retail sites than MSN Search and in fact referred 2.5% of all traffic to e-commerce sites.

British search engine marketing firm BigMouthMedia has come up with a map of the contextual “galaxies” of Web sites that orbit around the big search engines. These sites have different “gravitational pull” for advertisers, determined by such factors as traffic, integration of contextual ads, brand strength (in the U.K.) and the site’s performance in organic search results. BigMouthMedia found that in Britain, three of the top five performing contextual sites in the Google cosmos were social networks or had a social component: YouTube, MySpace and Digg. Yahoo’s top five contextual sites featured two social networks, the Flickr photo-sharing site and Del.icio.us.

So somebody on these social networking sites is interested in buying something. Will marketers be able to drill down and determine who’s got purchases on their mind and what they’re in the market for?

If some sort of demographic profiling is made available to them, they probably could. And that profile data is tantalizingly close, in the content of the millions of user profile pages on the social networks. Knowing who’s linked to whom, what interests and behaviors they seem to share, would make it easier for advertisers to place performance ads intelligently on these networks.

It could also kill any network that made that targeting information available, touching a off a firestorm of protest from members who felt their trust in the network had been abused. Any network that shows itself willing to monetize its users at he expense of their privacy risks setting off a stampede to competing properties that promise to keep user data under wraps. Remember, even the largest of these networks has fairly shallow roots with its core audience. Today’s MySpace could still turn into tomorrow’s Napster, which went from 100 million members in 2001 to 500,000 today.

“Is it possible to deliver targeting data for these networks? Definitely. Is it practical? I’m not certain,” says Stylman. ‘Significant privacy concerns are going to need to be factored in. There’s too much at stake for these companies to risk alienating their user base over delivering what might or might not turn out to be more relevant advertising.”

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