Why Brands Look Like People on Facebook

In Real-Time Marketing, Brands Are Consumers

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In my social feeds and yours, brands look a lot like people -- their posts occupy the same real estate as updates from my mom, they face the same blank box and photo uploader before publishing as I do. On Facebook, the biggest marketers in the world get accounts that look just like mine. On Twitter, a tweet from a company can be indistinguishable from any old guy with an internet connection.

How exactly did we get here?

When looking back at the recent (and packed) history of brand marketing online, some answers emerge. When the web first came along and banners started popping up, what was different?

There are three distinct phases that brought brands to the current age of real-time marketing:

  1. Consumers are in control
  2. Consumers are the medium
  3. Brands are consumers

Let me explain.

Consumers are in control (1994-2002)
There were lots of big changes that happened when marketing moved to the web (specifically display). You could point to the instant access to data, but I'd argue that 's more of an effect than a cause. The cause is "consumer control," a not great way to say what made banners so different than print ads and TV commercials was that people could click them. (If you remember, the first banner ad read "Have you ever clicked your mouse right HERE? You will.") This felt revolutionary, as we (in theory) moved from a world of interruptions to choice. Banners ads didn't go anywhere (and in fact, they become more disruptive as we moved to a world of rich media), but what happened next shook up the marketing industry in a real way: BMW released some films on the web.

Consumers are the medium (2002-2008)
For those that don't remember, starting in 2001 BMW released a series of films by famous directors that stirred up the advertising industry. While the films were supported with a big drive-to-web buy in traditional outlets, a significant part of the story was the "viral" component: people passing links via email and IM to one another (along with a bit of blogging, of course). The campaign became the thing every client wanted, and won the first-ever Titanium Lion from Cannes.

If BMW Films was the introduction to this new age, "Subservient Chicken" was its most infamous entrant. Launched in 2004, the site featured a weird-looking guy in a chicken suit who would do tricks on demand to ultimately sell sandwiches for Burger King. The site ended up garnering around 80 million uniques on a budget of under $100k. All of a sudden brands started to look at the web, and specifically the people using it, as the biggest audience in the world. The problem, of course, is that while the reach was there, it was not guaranteed (anyone who worked in an agency in this time period became well-versed in the explanation of why there is no "for sure" viral). What's so amazing about this time period is that , as my friend Colin Nagy from The Barbarian Group likes to say, it all happened without the social plumbing. In other words, we're no longer surprised to see something spread around the web, but there was no Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr in the days of BMW Films and Subservient Chicken: It was mostly email and IM.

An interesting aside in this phase is that the past three years (2005-2008) were all about YouTube. That was really the first channel that made brands step back and say, "maybe we don't need to be chasing people all over the web and we should just try being where the people are." Of course, because of the way YouTube operated, the people were really only in one of two places: On the video page they came to see or on the YouTube homepage. While it didn't quite turn into the content space brands might have hoped for, YouTube did set a spark in the minds of clients that there was another way to think about all this stuff.

Brands are consumers (2008-present)
Finally, we enter our current age. Lots of things are different, of course, but what seems to sum up the changes very nicely is this idea that brands are consumers. What that means is that where consumers are out in force (platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest), brands don't get differentiated treatment (no special rectangles or 300x250 boxes); they're given a regular account like the rest of us. A brand's Facebook page isn't any different from mine, and ultimately what that means is that brands have to act (and create content) just like people on these platforms. This is the age of native formats and real-time marketing, concepts which came out of the root idea that brands have a natural place in the ecosystem and an expectation that they can find ways to be interesting (after all, their competitors for attention on the platform are my friends). Brands, of course, aren't used to this and at first kept the platforms at arm's length. But as people continued to pile on time and attention, there was no way to ignore these spaces, and now, when a new platform launches, brands are often interacting well before there are paid options in place for them.

Of course, this also raises interesting challenges. There's not going to be just one social platform, and each appears to be going its own direction with its advertising platform (a good thing, as it continues to support the idea that brands should have a natural place).

The next few years are going to be fun.

Noah Brier is co-founder of Percolate. He was head of planning and strategy at the Barbarian Group, and a strategist at Naked Communications. He loves the internet.
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