From the very beginning of Internet-based social media outlets, companies recognized that these websites and networks could be valuable marketing tools. A social media website is, by design, a venue that gathers many people together in one place to exchange ideas and interact in various ways. For marketing experts, it has always been clear that this type of gathering has the potential to create a captive audience for advertising of many different sorts.
Social Networking as an Advertising Tool
The first characteristic of social media that makes them so amenable to advertising is their networking capacity. On many social networking websites, individuals develop large networks of people they know or whose activity they would like to follow. These networks, from the point of view of marketing, form self-created target markets that usually share interests and demographic characteristics. From a single individual, social networks can branch out to include hundreds or thousands of people who can be easily located and grouped by marketing professionals and software.
Online Interactivity for Marketing
Another characteristic of social media that seems tailor-made to cater to marketing is their interactive nature. Although Internet-based social networking began as a way for individuals to communicate with one another, it was not long before organizations such as bands, entertainment outlets, and businesses were creating their own profiles on social networks, allowing people to associate with them. An individual's profile on a social networking website might include a list of interests, and if that person's friends can click on an interest to navigate to a business' 'profile', the business has just gained the equivalent of a website page load for free. This makes social media an attractive advertising outlet due to its cost-effectiveness, particularly when compared to the number of people it has the capability to reach. For much, much cheaper than a television advertisement, a page on a social networking website could reach nearly as many people as the TV ad would.
The Illusion of Authenticity
From the marketing perspective, this seems too good to be true. Indeed, social media are quickly becoming filled with targeted advertising and gimmickry designed to give audiences an authentic experience of interaction when their true purpose is simply to sell a product. As this practice becomes more and more popular, it may turn out that using social networking websites as an advertising outlet is too good to be true. The reason is the aforementioned illusion of authenticity.
Interacting with Products
The reason that social networking works as a marketing tool is, in short, that it gives people the feeling that they are somehow really involved with the thing that's being sold. Whether it's a brand of shoes, a television show, or a hot new band, being able to add a product to your list of 'Friends' gives the impression that you and the product have something in common―an understanding or bond that goes beyond just a 30-second TV spot. Ads on television, on billboards, and even banner ads on websites, can't accomplish this sense of something real, something authentic. Social networking advertisements can, perhaps, accomplish that sense, but in the end they are still ads, and are, therefore, no more authentic than their television counterparts.
The Case of Magazine Ads
In order to explain why this can't last, a comparison with magazine advertisements is useful. Magazines are good outlets for highly specified marketing campaigns, because each magazine has a very specific audience. For example, car magazines are generally only read by car enthusiasts. Businesses whose products or services are automotive-related, therefore, can productively buy ad space in car magazines because they're sure that almost everyone who looks at the ad will be someone with a high probability of being interested in the product. Soon, however, magazine readers will catch on to this scheme and stop looking at the ads, skipping right past them without even registering their contents, because they know that they are being targeted as car enthusiasts and are not interested in being sold to.
They Just Want Your Money
The same thing is bound to happen with social media. Eventually, Internet users will catch on to the fact that, by friending a company or a favorite TV show, they are only participating in an advertising scheme, and they will begin to question the authenticity of this experience. When audiences realize that social media advertisements are targeting them as impersonally as magazine ads, they will stop feeling the sense of interaction that this new form of advertising once gave them, and they will stop participating in the marketing campaign.
Meaningful Social Networking
Many people surmise that social media are eroding the concept of friendship. Once, friendship was an important concept, and who you called your friends really mattered. Now, thanks to online social networking, your friends can be people you barely know, or even companies who are only interested in your money. However, living real, meaningful lives has always been and will always be important to people, even if the novelty factor occasionally derails them from this pursuit.
When people begin to understand what's really going on with marketing in social media, these outlets could become far less effective for businesses.