Social Search: It’s Time For Monetization

We’ve already discussed the beginnings of social search, and the evolution of social networks. Now, we will focus on monetization. Contrary to popular belief, social marketing doesn’t have to be painted with visions of Big Brother. We will describe how you can use social search technology, the coexistence of social and content sites, and where advertising fits into the picture.

Improved Ad Targeting and Content Optimization

An immediate outcome of social search and implicit circles of users is a rich, detailed picture of the organic customer communities (segments) that live on a Web site. The implicit communities of like-minded users and/or subject-matter experts act as the foundation for organizing search and recommendation relevance.

As a publisher, you cannot have a better segmentation methodology – in real time and without any bias – than the one that organically grows on your site. This segmented, collective intelligence can be used to better understand whether you are taking care of the most important customer groups on your site. It allows you to monitor their likes, dislikes, and changing tastes over time.

At the same time, what’s even more remarkable is that implicit circles are effectively a white-knight approach to producing relevant, highly-targeted ads. By leveraging the unstated interests of all site visitors, you are gathering nothing different (sometimes less) than what’s collected for site stats.

How Social Search Might Impact Ad Targeting

By employing social search-based approaches, ad targeting becomes far more dynamic and responsive. Let’s discuss the ad formats in wide use today, and how social search elements might impact them.

Text ads: We expect to increase the clickthrough rate (CTR) because ads are based on the true interests of the person and his community preferences, in addition to explicit intent. When contextual text ads are shown on content pages, CTRs should dramatically increase too. You get the intersection of the knowledge about the person with the content he sees, which is a big improvement over ads targeted on content alone, as practiced today.

Banner ads: These ads would shift from their traditional role of branding to more compelling visuals with valuable content. Why? The targeting would be made through real understanding of the users’ interests and the content of the site, rather than the broader behavioral or contextual matches used now. Publishers don’t need to rely on manually categorizing their ads into sections to target ads; instead, they would rely on the organic segmentation of site visitors and their interests.

Rich media: Perhaps these ads would be impacted the most, because social search enriches the metadata surrounding any rich media object including ads. This metadata is obtained from the interaction of people with these objects. A site publisher with video content would rely on the knowledge of the natural communities, which “tells him” which community is interested in which video – and which rich media ads to show.

Thus, social marketing enables targeting of all ad formats, whether rich media, banners or text. We see this moves targeting beyond what’s commonly called behavioral targeting today. Social approaches gather intelligence naturally for ad targeting, without the heavy-lifting and categorizations required now.

Advertising Gains on Social Sites

Advertisers on social sites look at ways to leverage the social graph of connections found on every social network site. The social graph has brought new meaning to social search and a new challenge to targeted advertising. Can the social graph make for better ad targeting?

The answer is that, on social sites, advertisers should consider both implicit and explicit social networks. Some advertisers should tap into the trust that an explicit network of contacts represents, which is more of peer influence. Meanwhile, others may want to target the implicit communities which represent segments of social site members that are implicitly connected through their interests and activities.

In both cases, advertisers should not view social marketing as a panacea. While they don’t have to focus on every segment anymore, they should consider the natural constraints that social network sites present, like state of mind, demographics and web experience of their audiences. What’s different with social targeting is the ability to reach the visitors more precisely and not having to be obsessed with the environmental concerns of their ads – they will be shown to people with interest in them.

Syndicating Widgets to Monetize Social Sites

As social sites tap into broad audience, they will compete for the attention of visitors on other sites. Advertisers and publishers can turn this threat into an opportunity using social search and implicit communities – and this is where the symbiotic relationship begins with social marketing.

Publishers can syndicate their content to communities of users on social sites, and reach users who would be interested in it. This content can be packaged as widgets and deployed on social networks sites using their platforms. Implicit communities on both source and destination will enable optimal matching of content to people. As an example, consider a site with deep content about sailing. The publisher can automatically package the relevant content selected by implicit communities on his site to match communities of people interested in sailing on social sites.

The same opportunities exist for advertisers, who can consider all types of ads: text, banners, even sponsorships that will target exactly the relevant segment of social site members. Their ad content may be what we think of as “traditional promotion” or take on other expert or sharing type elements. We already see these experiments happening on social sites now.

Interestingly enough, increasing relevancy of content and advertising improves the user experience on these social networks sites. We are all familiar with irrelevant banners that are placed in front of us and have nothing to do with the context of my stay on that page, or with my general interests. We actually welcome ads that are about our interests, and the proof of that was long ago, with search ad ascendancy.

Social Search is Here to Stay

The good news is we’re in a more socially-oriented online world; it’s not about content only, but also the people and their attention communities. It’s time to look around and think about your visitors in a new light. They contribute insights though their implicit social circles that web publishers and advertisers haven’t been listening to before. Think of your visitors as people rather than traffic – they hold the proverbial keys to creating great content sites and monetization beyond sheer volumes alone.

This is true outside your destination too, social marketing enables you to reach people who potentially would be interested in your content but never discovered your site. They live now on social networks and create the relevant attention communities that you want and are able to target.

The new technologies that are being introduced enable advertisers and publishers to exploit the social world and are beneficial to all parties involved. These socially-based approaches can be done without privacy implications – and they enable new advertising models and efficiencies. Online marketers have been known for changing the rules, and this is simply another opportunity that’s possible now.

Levy Cohen is CEO of Collarity, a community-based search technology company based in Palo Alto, Calif. He has founded several successful software companies, including RightOrder, which addressed fundamental challenges related to structured and unstructured data for enterprise applications.

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