Interactive Marketing and Social Media

Think you know advertising? Think again. The social web is challenging all conventions, from who creates the content to how we define media.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, December 4-7, 2006, Chicago, Illinois

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, advertising was defined by Merriam-Webster as follows: "To call public attention to, especially by emphasizing desirable qualities so as to arouse a desire to buy or patronize." The rise of the social web, however, has created a new advertising order where the goal is to partner with the customer so he or she may interact with, or call public attention to, your product or service. This was the vanguard topic of the well-attended SES Chicago session "Advertising in Social Media." Rebecca Lieb moderated as four panelists provided pointers on how best to promote a brand within this new world order.

Gary Stein, Director of Strategy for Ammo Marketing supports a new marketer-consumer balance. "Consumers are won when you meet them as equals." While many firms are bewildered by the amount of user-generated content that either supports or vetoes a brand, Stein applauds efforts to partner with customers, "so that they may partner with you."

"Why must we partner with customers?" a stodgy, old ad man might ask. For Marc Schiller, CEO of Electric Artists, the answer is clear. "What has changed since the Internet bubble in 2000? It became a lot more social." Today, marketers should focus less on connecting with customers, and more on connecting customers with other customers.

This sentiment wais reiterated by Bill Flitter, Vice President, Marketing, of Pheedo, who described interactive marketing as "tell us what you think of what we tell you," and social media as "tell each other." Flitter's firm has had success with this model, most notably by orchestrating the strategic product placement of Citrix's GoToMeeting conferencing service in a popular 3-hour live podcast. The placement was clearly sponsored, and included a live demo, a co-branded landing page, and an opportunity to win a free license. It was a wild success.

As a bonus, Flitter noted that "Social media campaigns keep on giving." In the case of GoToMeeting, the landing page continued to experience high search engine visibility for the brand's top keywords and that there were over 800 mentions of the campaign in the blogosphere. "Ultimately, these social media marketing techniques dramatically outperformed other online advertising vehicles."

Schiller, on the other hand is one of the first to place products in Second Life, the virtual world with over 1.6 million inhabitants and a mission to make the place better than real life. By creating an avatar, residents can network, share ideas and sometimes make a living within the immersive environment. While there is no direct ROI for marketers in Second Life, branding and PR opportunities abound.

This year Schiller's client, Starwood, became the first company to build a prototype of a future real life hotel in Second Life. The effort created an opportunity for Starwood to solicit immediate feedback on the concept and design with minimal effort. In real life, the effort was supported by a blog to track the "build" process. While the concept might seem too futuristic for some, Starwood is not alone. Scion has released virtual cars in Second Life and Major League Baseball simulcast the Home Run Derby in Second Life.

Clearly, all the rules are being broken. Henry Copeland, founder of BlogAds, considers this a very good thing. If it were up to him, IAB standards would disappear today. For Copeland, good ads are ads that mimic the social nature of the web. By offering hyperlinks within the ad to other rich conversations, the conversation will ultimately turn towards the brand and the ad itself. To prove his point, he unveiled a series of blog ads that would not be considered aesthetically appealing by traditional standards, but experienced high return.

After a flurry of audience questions, Copeland summed it up best by serving up a question of his own to the audience: "What is advertising anymore?" For curious ad executives, the answer is likely being discussed right now on the social web.

Sara Holoubek is a free agent consultant for the interactive advertising sector and its investors. She can be reached at saraholoubek (at) gmail (dot) com.

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