Seven Years In, It's Time for Social to Grow Up

Irony: The Most Engaging Sites Create the Worst Ads

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Today's social ad platforms--Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Buzzfeed, Wetpaint, Demand Media and the like--have transformed the way we think about media, and shown an intuitive ability to gauge what people (and then their friends and families) will like and share.

Their leaders haven't been at all shy in forecasting their coming supremacy as the central marketing platforms of digital media, supplanting established consumer intent platforms like search engines as the new portals to the Internet. As someone who cut his teeth at in the late 90's, perhaps the earliest precursor to what we now call social media, I understand the value proposition that this type of content model, if well executed, can be.

On the other hand, having worked in the search business for many years, I can also say that while social is a promising trend, it will be hard-pressed to usurp meaningful share from search or display and other established digital marketing vehicles until there is consistent, standard measurement of the effectiveness of driving either brand or direct response marketer objectives.

There are fundamental questions facing social. What is the value of a like or a share or a follower? What qualifies as engagement? How does it affect the bottom line and how do you truly measure it? Brand marketing is done for a reason to ultimately build mind share to get butts in seats, heads in beds or products off shelves.

Many brands are just plain confused about what to do with social. Run ads? Try to drive direct response? Create an identity? Drive likes, followers, discussion? And then what do I do about the relative lack of access to consumer data? It's not surprising that the industry questions the long-term value proposition for social advertising.

My intent here is not to pile on to the social media; it's in all of our best interest to see companies like Facebook, Twitter and BuzzFeed succeed wildly, captivate users and deliver engaging advertising.

But that doesn't change the lack of engaging formats and results-based accountability for social advertising. There should be no special status for social. Like all other digital media, they need to show a clear return on ad spend or someday soon brands will walk away.

In 2002, seven years into digital advertising, brands made the same demands – and accountability was delivered. Now we are seven years into social. It is time to show proof of the value of social ads.

Here's where I think they should start:

Stop making up metrics. The social industry-created metrics currently being peddled won't ultimately pass muster. We are all in this together and in the end, driving a conversion is better than driving a Like or a share any day of the week. So rely on good ol'-fashioned conversion metrics like ROI, clicks or engagement—not made-up hocus pocus. We have to get back to the basic fact that advertising should generate sales.

Make better ads, please. How is it possible that social media is the most engaging channel with the least engaging ads! Next to TV, there is nothing as engaging as social but you cannot compare the depressing ad options on social to the rich experience in television advertising. How about more full screen experiences? Rich media interstitial ads before viewing content? Unless social publishers start really encouraging and facilitating the application of more creative firepower to generating better consumer ad experiences, big marketers will invest more in online video and rich media in general.

Social has created visionary leaders that have inspired, fresh new business models. In my estimation, the only way they can fail to achieve their full potential is if they continue to only pay lip service to measurement and advertiser accountability. It's time for social to prove its worth through real metrics and better ad options. It's called growing up.

Will Margiloff is CEO of IgnitionOne, a unit of Dentsu.
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