Remember the flashing advertisements that graced many websites in the early 2000s? I’d like to think that the internet has become home to better taste and design – where crude pop-up advertisements suggesting different vices are reserved for websites for watching online tv. However, it seems as if many social media platforms, once hailed for their user friendly aesthetic, are taking a turn towards the tacky. Facebook announced that it is going to include commercials in personal timelines that will automatically start playing. Pinterest sent out a kind email earlier this year that they are including advertisements and on Instagram product placement is taking place in various sepia tones.
It seems fair that social media platforms are cashing for the services they provide freely. Furthermore, since people are sharing a lot of personal information online, social media platforms provide businesses the opportunity to target their advertising to very specific groups – so advertising on these platforms is lucrative for investors as well. The question becomes: how should social media advertising be presented?
Classic commercials 2.0
In a sense, Facebook and Youtube are re-inventing the classic commercials formula – where commercials are put in between your content, and you may not be able to skip it. Videos pop-up between content (your Facebook timeline) or before you watch videos (on Youtube). These advertisements are clearly recognizable as marketing, and although they will be tuned in to your assumed interests, they may still be intrusive by wasting your time or cluttering your timeline. ‘Forcing’ consumers to watch commercials is not necessarily effective – research by google shows that the option to skip advertisements increases the probability that viewers will click on it (source: Business Insider). In other words, consumers demand the choice in which advertisements they view, and which ads they ignore.
On the other side of the spectrum, advertisements as they appear on Instagram aim to blend seamlessly with the tone of many Instagram photos. On a positive note, this means that they will not distract from browsing and they may not feel superficial and evasive. The Michael Kors advertisement initially had a negative reception, but ultimately resulted in 34,000 new followers (source: Nitrogram). However, what if we don’t immediately recognize an advertisement when we see it? Is that an ethical problem?
Using social media culture
A third way to use social media to increase sales (or in the following example, donations) is not by directly using social media to place advertisements, but to use the cultural importance of social media to garner attention. Perhaps the most effective social media campaign of 2013 was the ‘hashtag killer’ campaign by the Water is Life charity. Winner of the Webby award, this campaign ridiculed the popular #firstworldproblem by asking people in Haiti to recite the tweets – thus emphasizing that complaining about ‘first world problems’ is really quite ridiculous. In this way, trends on social media, with which many are familiar, are put into perspective and associated with an organization. The only question that arises is whether the social media platforms can make money off this type of advertising by third parties.