December 22, 2014

Written by Dylan Sellberg

Information is knowledge. In 2014, the biggest marketing firms all the way to the National Security Agency (NSA) all want to understand who the people of the world are, and more importantly what they are interested in. But, the real question is what do these companies want to do with your information and how will they leverage it? 

There are now over 1.15 billion Facebook users and over 550 million registered users on Twitter. That’s a lot of people, translating into a lot of untapped advertising dollars. So, I set out to see exactly where these advertising dollars were being spent.

Data collection began on January 30th, 2014. The collection would last for 14 days and the task was simple, record every advertisement I saw on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Not only were the advertisements recorded, they were also checked for relevant metrics of effective advertisement; the company who they were advertising, my interest in a given advertisement, whether or not the advertisement was recommended through my network, and the advertisement’s relevance to my demographic were all considered.

Back in 2011, the term native advertisement didn’t exist. Marketers used the context and content of a page to target their audience (Aljukhadar, Senecal 429) as opposed to their users, to determine which advertisements should be placed where. This new media has been categorized using two characteristics: 1) interactivity and 2) digital, (Shankar and Hollinger, 2007) both of which are inherently present on both Facebook and Twitter. In this new media, there are three groups of advertisements. Intrusive where the consumer is “interrupted” (Godin, 1999) by advertising, non-intrusive where the consumer chooses to receive the communications, and user generated where the consumer actually creates the communications.  From what was recorded in the study, Facebook and Twitter advertisements would fall under the category of non-intrusive. While they do clutter a timeline with information that was not consensually signed for, they do so in a manner that blends and adheres to the look and feel of the page. Over the course of two weeks, a total of 182 of these non-intrusive advertisements were recorded across Facebook (135) and Twitter (47). 

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Was it interesting?

For the sake of this study, although ambiguous, I categorized an ‘interesting’ advertisement as one that would typically yield a click-through or a purchase in the near future. These ‘interesting’ advertisements were all effective in creating a buzz in my mind about the company or their product and/or service; something that social media provides the opportunity for. (Papasolomou & Melanthiou, 2012). An advertisement has not served a proper purpose if it has not interested its target. 

After two weeks of survey 27% of Facebook, and 26% of Twitter advertisements were defined as ‘interesting’. Those numbers seem strikingly low considering how much both of these platforms know about the individual. These results are a contribution to the conclusion that even though these social media sites are aware of my gender, age, education, location, and much more, they still have a difficult time targeting what interests the user. Being so unsatisfied with the results, I turned to a Men’s Health Magazine to study those advertisements. Out of a total of 51 advertisements in the magazine, 17 (33%) struck me as interesting. This helped cement the notion that even though companies know plenty about their consumers, both digitally and traditionally, it is difficult to specifically trigger what makes them interested in each and every advertisement. 

Was I connected?

“Billions of people create trillions of connections through social media each day.” (Hansen, 2011). I set out to measure how effectively advertisers were leveraging this phenomenon as stated above.

To do this, I measured if an ad was “liked by a friend” or “followed” by somebody I follow. On Facebook, 17% of advertisements were accompanied by the text “Facebook friend likes this” and on Twitter 32% of advertisement were alongside a “followed by somebody I follow” text. This is perhaps the only instance where Twitter earned a superior statistic to Facebook in advertisement, and this particular category means a lot. On Facebook, it seemed that if a friend liked the ad that it was a mere coincidence. On the contrary, advertisement on Twitter seemed to be placed on my timeline purely because I followed somebody who followed the advertisers account.

Consumers can be fooled into thinking something is not spam if the ad is also liked by a member of their tribe, somebody who has a common interest in a specific activity. (Cova & Dalli, 2009) In layman’s terms, this strategy is like the advertising agency saying “Hey! Your friends like this, you should too!” This is perhaps one of the most important qualities of an effective advertisement. 

Another reason for this feature in advertisement is avoidance of the interpretation of spam. Spam in general has an extremely negative connotation, in some communities spammers or “trolls” are even banned from taking part altogether. (Seraj, 2012) If an ad is seen as spam or a nuisance, it violates the feeling of being non-intrusive as discussed earlier. One way that these advertisements avoid this perception is that they do in fact fit seamlessly into your timeline or newsfeed. Their placement and design are sometimes even mistaken for a friend’s post, which would be the ultimate goal here. It is important to note that overall, Facebook is much less crowded with these trolls and spammers than Twitter. Facebook and Twitter differ on this account due to the complex and simplistic nature, respectively, of registration for an account.
It has been suggested that in order to tap into the social connections we have developed the advertiser must understand the “social media ecosystem”, visualized in three types of media: owned, paid, and earned (Hanna et al. 2013). The way I see it, through analysis of Facebook and Twitter advertisements, first a firm must pay for media space, at which point it owns certain portions of the media. Then, once it has garnished credibility it earns the right to be shared with a subject’s connections. This reason alone is enough to justify tapping into the aforementioned trillions of connections made each day through social media. 

Was it relevant?

The ‘relevance’ test of these 182 advertisements was admittedly ambiguous, much like the interest test. An advertisement was deemed relevant if it would be considered useful or effective to anybody in a similar situation to me. The qualifications here were much less strict than the ‘interest’ test, yielding a 75% relevance rate for Facebook advertisement and 53% relevance for Twitter advertisement. 

Relevance of an advertisement is essential to ensure the widest range of consumer enjoyment. If an advertisement has no relation or connection to the audience targeted, there will be widespread dissatisfaction. It is crucial to understand that just because an ad is not interesting to a consumer, it could still serve as relevant. For example, car advertisements are not interesting to me because I am not in the market for a car. However, when I see a car company promoting themselves or their models on my Facebook or Twitter feeds I understand that they are relevant to my demographic. 

The essence of enjoyment is a good attitude, therefore it is important for companies and marketers alike to shape their marketing activities in ways in which consumers enjoy them, as opposed to looking like a blatant attempt at a sales pitch. (Akar & Topu, 2011) As long as an advertisement maintains perceived relevance in a potential consumers life, it is not seen as merely an advertisement, it is seen as a product providing entertainment or enjoyment. 

What does it all mean? 

After 14 days of tracking the so-called “future of advertising” social media frenzy, it became clear to me that there is still much to learn and develop through this platform. The truth is, social media advertising is not all it is cracked up to be. This epiphany did not come to me after I had finished analyzing Facebook, nor after dissecting Twitter; it came to me after flipping through a Men’s Health Magazine. What shocked me most about this Men’s Health Magazine is that 100% of the advertisements were relevant, and 1/3 of them interested me. Now, how is it that a website that knows so much about me cannot put together a better advertisement showing than that? 
Aside from my realization that traditional media advertisements were better served than social media, I have come to realize two limitations that may inhibit new media marketing growth. The first is privacy concerns, and the second is cost. 

Primarily, in regards to privacy, “recent development has raised privacy concerns, and calls by privacy advocates and lawmakers for regulations that set limits on web tracking across web sites by Internet service providers.” (Varadarajan et al., 2009) These privacy concerns should prove as hurdles for marketers moving forward as people and governing bodies alike become more concerned with their personal digital protection.

The second hurdle social media marketing will need to jump is the myth of low-costs. The traditional and overused phrase and perception that “social media marketing is free” is complete garbage.  Ever since I was a kid my father has taught me “nothing is free, son” and that stands true with social media marketing. All of the posts that show on Facebook and Twitter as promoted have been paid for. These types of advertisements are not cheap, either. It is also important to consider that even though reach may be higher per dollar on a social media ad versus a magazine, the magazine leaves room for volumes of creativity and design beyond 140 characters. 

To conclude my arguments drawn from observations I would like to allude to a quote by one of the greatest financial moguls of our time: 

“If you see a bandwagon, it’s too late” –Sir James Michael “Jimmy” Goldsmith



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Erkan Akar & Birol Topu (2011) “An Examination of the Factors Influencing Consumers' Attitudes Toward Social Media Marketing”, Journal of Internet Commerce, 10:1, 35-67, DOI: 10.1080/15332861.2011.558456

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Ioanna Papasolomou & Yioula Melanthiou (2012) “Social Media: Marketing Public Relations’ New Best Friend”, Journal of Promotion Management, 18:3, 319-328, DOI: 10.1080/10496491.2012.696458

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Shankar, Venkatesh (2008), “Strategic Allocation of Marketing Resources: Methods and Managerial Insights,” Marketing Science Institute Report, 08–207.

Varadarajan, R & Yadav, M (2009) “Marketing Strategy in an Internet-Enabled Environment: A Retrospective on the First Ten Years of JIM and a Prospective on the Next Ten Years” Journal of Interactive Marketing. [Online] Elsevier Database P. 11-22. Available from: www.elsevier/locate/intmar [Accessed 15 February 2015]