Social Media a Struggle For Brands in '08

One might have expected 2008 to bring a great many social marketing success stories, given the huge, engaged audiences amassed by the likes of Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter. However as the year ends, things remain pretty much where they were last January. That is to say, creating campaigns for social platforms is hard work that frequently produces marginal results, and upbeat case studies are few and far between.

"Not many marketers have really cracked the code," said Amy Auerbach, SVP and director of digital at Initiative. "It's such a utility for Web users."

Google is one firm whose efforts on social networking sites are "not monetizing as well as expected," according to previous CFO George Reyes.

Reyes and co-founder Larry Page told investors back in January that the firm has done "lots of experimenting" with social network advertising. Google represents ads on MySpace, its own Orkut service, and numerous other properties.

"We have a huge amount of social networking inventory," said Page. "It varies quite a bit how well we monetize, based on a number of factors, some of which we understand, some of which we don't."

More recently, the company shut down a nascent experiment with another social platform: virtual worlds. Its Lively persistent virtual environment lasted only four months, but in that short time was leveraged by ad agency Millions of Us on behalf of National Geographic Channel.

Indeed, if brands haven't cracked the social marketing code, it's not for lack of trying. Adidas, Betty Crocker, Paramount Pictures, and Al Gore's "We" campaign are just a few of those to try social marketing strategies in 2008. These efforts created apps, gave out virtual fedoras (See "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull"), and served good old-fashioned display ads based on the data in user profiles.

In an effort to support such targeting, the major social nets have developed new formats and data-driven ad buying systems. In August Facebook rolled out a new product, called Engagement Ads, to let users interact with brands within ads. A month later, MySpace launched a long-awaited self-serve ad platform, allowing bands and other profile owners to slice and dice its audience into low-cost ad buys.

As happens with any new channel, vendors and ad networks have emerged to satisfy the appetite for social marketing tools. One of them is Media6degrees, a firm that combines social network data with cookies and ad server logs to pinpoint a person's interests and generate anonymous profiles of their real friends (versus, say colleagues and acquaintances) while they're visiting Web sites. These "micro-affinity groups" are prone to buy like products, according to CEO Joe Doran, a former Microsoft ad platform GM.

Initiative's Auerbach called the Media6degrees platform the "standout of the year."

Some would argue that distinction belongs to America's President-Elect Barack Obama, whose community platform at raised the bar for Webroots politicking. Over the course of the election season, thousands of posts were created at the multi-user blogging portal, which registered around 1.5 million people.

Or perhaps the title should go to Twitter. The two-year-old micro-blogging service is the latest obsession of clued-in marketers everywhere, as well as an object of derision for some hype-doubters. Twitter's strengths as a marketing platform are decidedly of the conversational variety, as brands such Ford, Dunkin Donuts, and Whole Foods are learning.

But these breakaway hits are by and large exceptions to the rule. And the rule is this: Marketers can't easily build awareness on social media sites -- not yet anyway.

"Social media is a good data mining tool for sure," said Auerbach. "Beyond that, in terms of marketing to people while they're at social media destinations, it's not as good as we'd hoped."

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