Face/off on Face/book

Originally written on 20 March, 2008.

A vast amount of our time is spent in the virtual world. Our lives are dotted in cyberspace. We search it for careers, for friendship and for love. It answers our questions on the weather, directions, places to eat, places to sleep. Before you asked your friends for answers, now you ask Google. Now everyone is an expert via Wikipedia. The internet has become an online juke box and a Blockbuster. Everything is now on demand and we expect nothing less.

We are shifting away from traditional mediums and creating new ones. We used to read books, now we download audio versions on to our iPods. Comics are now uploaded page by page online. Radio is a dying format, as we can now broadcast online via podcasts, ensuring that you have not missed a beat.

Newspapers used to get old by the day, now it gets old by the minute. With RSS (Real Simple Syndication), our news is updated and feed to us every time we log online. We have dynamic content and it is tailored to our needs. Relevance has suddenly hit a new meaning.

We connect with our friends through online platforms such as MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, Friendster or one of the other networking sites. Social networking has become the buzz word for the last year or so. We document our lives on blogs, we share our videos on YouTube, we play games on Facebook and we listen to new music on MySpace.

Each of these online platforms has unique and tailored content created by each user. These webpages we create are our online space. A space that we carve out on the world wide web. It is personal to each user. And that is the beauty of it – it is your space, your voice to the world. A place were you can broadcast, chat with friends, and share photos.

Earlier tonite, I attended a seminar titled “Building brands on Facebook and Web 2.0” held by the Australian Marketing Institute. It claimed that traditional advertising was a one way street. Advertising was directed one way, from the marketer to the consumer. Now, using Web 2.0 through online platforms such as MySpace, blogs or Facebook, the user tells the public what they are interested in. It creates niche markets and thus offers boundless opportunities to deliver advertising tailored to each user. Marketers, advertisers and corporations salivate at these opportunities now available to them.

But will this form of advertising work? Will users of Web 2.0 fight back and refuse to respond to these ads?

We look at most of these online platforms and we see that the mentality of the people running them has changed. They originally had social and interactive purposes. Then they were sold. Google bought YouTube for $1.65bn. Newscorp bought MySpace for $580m. Microsoft bought a 1.6% strategic stake in Facebook for $240m, effectively valuing Facebook at $16bn. Have these networking sites been corporatized? Have new vested interests changed these websites?

One would have to say yes. These conglomerates did not buy them to keep them as they are. They bought them with the sole intent of advertising on them and leveraging the details and the content of the users. So much of our lives are documented on social networking websites. Our favourite music, our marital status, our interests, our friends, and the charities we support. Marketers have found the pot of gold for demographics and consumer preferences. And these companies want a return on their investments.

However, this is bad news. We did not sign up for this. We signed up to share our lives with our friends, not corporations. It is both invasive and intrusive. We made YouTube what it is today. We put our original content on there. Now, if you look at the YouTube website, when you watch a video, there is a list of ads on the right hand side tailored to each video. Who knows what they might do next? Put advertisements in front of our videos? Recommend movies to us based on the videos?

Advertising is encroaching too far into our personal lives. MySpace is what it says it is “MY SPACE”. Not Coca-Cola’s space. Not Commonwealth Bank. Not every Tom, Dick and Harry who wants to advertise on my page. I do not appreciate Facebook ads on my homepage. If I write about travel or a post a picture of my travels, do I want to see an advertisement for flights? Hell no. But that is what is happening. Increasingly, we are starting to see more and more tailored ads filter into our Facebook pages. Users of Facebook like myself simply ignore this. Advertising has always been like this – we can choose to ignore or we choose to take in what is relevant.

Online advertising has become really annoying these days. I can’t go to my sports favourite site ESPN.com without some dreaded POP UP Ad suddenly appearing on the page. I don’t even see the purpose of pop up ads. That is why I installed a pop up blocker program to get rid of these monstrosities. And if it does get past my filter, I simply delete the ad anyway.

Another thing that annoys me, is that there was as case study in the seminar about how they were promoting these period pain medication. One of their subtle techniques they used was to send free samples to the top 100 women bloggers in Australia, because this would help promote the product amongst influential bloggers. The idea is that women would read about the products on the blog and this would create brand awareness and then prompt them to purchase the product.

To me this is akin to bribery. I believe I am qualified to state my opinion, as I have been blogging for almost 4 years. This is BS. I can’t believe marketers would stoop to this. Blogs are popular because they represent what real people think. They are our raw thoughts, our emotions, what we as individuals think. Bloggers are independent writers and should not be influenced by these kinds of marketing techniques. Sure, marketers have been giving away product samples for centuries. However, any blogger in their right mind, would never promote this product. Corporate blogs don’t work for this reason because they are sanitized and are fake. If I knew a blogger was given a product sample or some kind of inducement, and then promoted the product, it would ruin their reputation in my eyes.

One of the best examples of these subtle advertising is GMAIL. The controversy with GMAIL when we first signed up was that Google would filter through our email and deliver advertising to us based on what was in our emails. To this very day, I have ignored all the advertising that Google has bombarded me with. It simply doesn’t work. In fact, I have never clicked on any ad displayed by Google on its search results page. For me, as a consumer, I would rather find the website for myself with a bit of exploring.

It’s the same reason that I don’t click on any recommended item on Amazon.com. I might select a DVD or a CD, then Amazon will recommend an item based on what past buyers also bought or looked at. It tries to work me out based on mathematical algorithms, using customer purchase patterns. I feel that this is what will happen with Facebook and MySpace. I don’t respond to this type of advertising because it tries to work me out – it tries to homogenize me into a commodity. If I like a Jay-Z CD, does that mean I will also consider buy a recommended Kanye West CD?

Online advertising on social networks has its place. But marketers have to be very careful that they do not encroach on a user’s space. Each space is personal to each user. It is a very fine line that needs to be balanced between commerciality and social function. If we become bombarded with ads and we see that these sites no longer serve the purpose of what we signed up for, then we will rebel. We will leave you with nothing but a billion dollar lemon.

Enjoy.

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