Is Social Advertising Subverting Social Media Marketing?

May 2, 2015

Fueled by new technologies and widespread corporate adoption, social advertising is finally hitting the mainstream. According to a recent report issued by Strategy Analytics, ad spend on social networks grew a robust 41% globally in 2014, totaling over $ 15.3 billion, and now accounts for 11% of global digital ad spend. A similar report by eMarketer was even more sanguine, projecting that social advertising spend will reach $ 23.68 billion in 2015. Regardless of which figure you go with, the trend line is clear: brands are shifting their ad dollars into social media.


The Ad Man Cometh


While seen by many as the inevitable advancement of ad tech into fertile new territory, the trend of brands investing in social advertising is a growing cause for concern among many practitioners of and believers in “organic” or “traditional” social media marketing. Writing in Ad Age last month, Mike Proulx wrote a subtle, albeit widely misconstrued, article lamenting the current state of social media marketing:


“Let’s call it what it is: Social media marketing is now advertising. It’s largely a media planning and buying exercise — emphasizing viewed impressions. Brands must pay if they really want their message to be seen. It’s the opposite of connecting or listening — it’s once again broadcasting.”


After saying his peace, Proulx shifted tack, taking a more practical “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” approach by offering five ways marketers could take advantage of this new era of, as he dubbed it, #NotReally social media marketing (for which he was widely pilloried in the comments section at the end of his post).


With Pernicious Ad Tech


To summarize, the argument from the anti-social advertising crowd goes something like this: after a promising start to a digitally driven social media marketing model that was meant to create democratic two-way social engagement between brands and consumers, Madison Avenue has since moved in and poisoned the social media garden root and branch, infusing pernicious ad tech into the fledgling social ecosystem, to its lasting detriment.


Here’s the thing: as the marketing world goes digital and social media hits the mainstream, the infusion of big money into social media was all but inevitable. After all, most businesses are capitalist ventures and money, it goes without saying, is an integral part of capitalism.


Although as a digital marketer I empathize on a gut level with the lament over big corporate media bullies tromping in our (as yet) largely unsullied organic social media sandbox, in reality I think some level of investment in social advertising is a smart thing for most brands. As social media marketing comes of age, I don’t think the answer is (or has to be) either/or—either you connect with and engage your audience organically with social media marketing or you try to target them with social ads—but instead is a combination of the two; a both/and, if you will.


Understanding the Digital Consumer


Humans are complex creatures with varying preferences and sometimes consonant, sometimes dissonant, impulses and motivations. If we business practitioners and marketers are to truly buy into the idea that digital is, in fact, seamlessly integrating into virtually every aspect of consumers’ daily lives, then we must also accept the parallel notion that digital consumers (complex humans that they are) may want two-way, open engagement with brands at certain times and highly targeted ads containing relevant information and offers from them at others. If as a consumer I have a question or a complaint, I may wish to socially interface with a human (via a digital medium or otherwise); if I’m trying to buy something, I may simply want to transact my business and be done with it.


In a deeper sense, I think the whole social advertising vs organic social media marketing debate betrays the extent to which social really has hit the business mainstream. As such, it represents another stage in the continuing maturation process—the coming of age, if you will—of social media as a legitimate marketing tool for all brands great and small.


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