There’s been a lot of talk lately about monetizing social networks. MySpace
has swapped out much of its senior leadership with talent more experienced in marketing. Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) is floating plans to launch an ad network someday. Both services already put ads on their sites, sell sponsorships, etc.
Most, if not all, of these kinds of efforts focus on using social networks as glorified channels for branding. Companies hope to sell things by paying to put their brands in front of consumers as they’re on their way to, doing things at, and planning to leave their networked communities.
How is this any different than putting up billboards on the way to the fair? Is it possible that the true value of social networks could be derived from seeing them as places?
If you follow this idea through, it suggests an entirely different approach to monetizing social media services, one based less on an imagined future of new, learned behaviors, and more on the old, established behaviors that have driven marketplaces for hundreds of years.
It’s even possible that what drives social media profit will be identical to what drove marketplaces and fairs in Queen Elizabeth’s England of the 1500s.
Like a village fair, social networks are places where people go to do things: to get updated on what’s going on; to gossip; to buy and sell items. As such, the qualities that inform those behaviors are things like authenticity, immediacy, relevance, and meaning. When those qualities are present, people realize value from their actions at the site, just as they do at the fair. When they are not, folk leave empty-handed and unsatisfied.
Markets have always been purpose-driven. According to Peter Ackroyd's brilliant book, London: The Biography, Elizabethan markets emerged quite organically and usually took place on specified days of the week. These marketplaces were loud, chaotic, and sometimes outright dangerous, yet people braved them to accomplish things. Their visits yielded value.
Over time, various regulations and services were layered on top of the markets, in order to make them even more valuable to consumers. Rules were created to certify quality. Brokers emerged to facilitate payment for transactions.
Similarly, brands today should consider ways to contribute to that value of experience and thus share in it. Consider Coke sponsoring a user ID service, so people could certify or "know" one another when they met; or Sony starting and then moderating conversations. Brands might improve their awareness by providing utility and purpose to the market instead of merely posting signs in it for passersby.
The old and new markets share the same pitfalls, too. Choosing to run a funny promotion is no different than hiring a peasant to dip his face in the mud; it’s entertaining, maybe, but it’s incidental, somewhat external to the transactions for which people are visiting. Distraction is not synonymous with engagement, irrespective of what century you’re talking about.
And a billboard along the path to the market isn’t a sustainable or terribly useful approach. Worse, throwing ads at visitors, no matter how they’ve been prequalified, risks damaging the very behaviors marketers hope to exploit, because it shows you’re taking those visitors for granted.
— Jonathan Salem Baskin is the author of Branding Only Works on Cattle.