A recent BIA/Kelsey study projects that social-media ad spending will grow significantly over the next few years, from $4.7 billion last year, to $11 billion in 2017. While that number undoubtedly has investors and entrepreneurs salivating, it scares the Yeezus out of me.
Is the advertising industry ready to deliver? Consider this: Only one in 20 Facebook users has clicked on an ad in the last year, according to a YouGov study. Fewer than one in 10 feels that targeted advertising on social media is relevant to him or her. Ads on the right-hand rail of Facebook, the spammy direct messages, 30-second-long pre-rolls in front of 15-second-long content, mobile-ad banners, all contribute to this problem, invading our personal space like corporations' litter in our own backyards.
As social-media platforms consolidate and become parts of public companies (or go public themselves), they face great pressure to generate advertising revenue at a tremendous scale. To do that, they invariably proceed down the paths of least resistance and sell most of their ads to the people that have always bought ads, so those ads wind up looking similar to the way online ads have always looked.
The marketing promise of social-media platforms has always been their ability to bring people closer to brands, but that's a lot of work. It doesn't "scale" quickly enough. So we get fat-burning ads (it's not just me that gets those, right?). And a lot of them. And we'll get a lot more of them if we chase revenue instead of consumers.
I'd say we must find a way to rise above this, but the solutions already exist. Most social-media platforms (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter) have native-advertising solutions that are designed to be vehicles for good content. While brands have always been publishing on those platforms, most of their advertising dollars have been spent on acquiring connections ("likes", "followers") or on direct response.
Facebook conducts events like "publishing garages" to teach brands how to be better publishers, but the vast majority of ad dollars is still spent on low-hanging, clickable fruit. This is because money spent on social media is typically, and unnecessarily, siloed away from content. People buying the advertising are generally too far away from the people creating the content, so the two have little or nothing to do with one another, and the money is whisked farther and farther from the content it should be supporting. It's a huge disconnect.
Social-media advertising should be a result, not a product. An ad should be what happens to a good piece of content. A good piece of content will be shared by people through social media. Ad dollars are better spent exponentially increasing the positive momentum of a good piece of content and making it great (getting it shared by even more people).
We keep trying to cram advertising, in its classic interruptive, distractive, role, into social media. Instead, we should embrace what social media is great at -- facilitating the spread of great content and important ideas. This is going to mean drastically streamlining what is historically a campaign-based process. Brands must constantly be producing, publishing and promoting content, so we can support great content with advertising dollars at the right times. Great social-media ad planning is the preparation that enables us to act quickly.
Not all brands will produce content worth sharing. Not all brands are built to act quickly. But brands that do both will reap the results of a content-first social-media advertising strategy.