The latest controversy over the use of social media for advertising purposes has focused on Facebook. The news media has jumped all over the story, perhaps because recognition of the social networking site has now leapt far beyond the confines of the internet.
The story – that companies such as Virgin Media have been paying to advertise on web pages promoting the BNP – comes at a time when marketers are scrambling to harness the huge potential of social media, with study after study revealing how budget is being pumped into this area.
The current storm raises a host of issues but I believe above all offers a great opportunity for brands, advertisers, social networks and their users, to learn.
Context has always been a key factor for advertisers. The current situation has drawn attention again to the difficult question of the most effective way to utilise social media for advertising and brand building. As the NMA, who broke the story, pointed out: "On the internet you often have little control of where your ads are shown. That’s now been highlighted by the unwitting association of some of the UK’s favourite brands with a highly controversial political cause."
The advertisers who have withdrawn their advertising – Vodafone, the COI, and First Direct – have all stated that their brand values have been contravened by appearing alongside offensive material. As Virgin Media states they have a duty to their consumers to advertise in a responsible way.
All of the above highlights the need for advertisers and media buying agencies to develop a greater understanding of the medium. With the continual proliferation of user generated content it is difficult to restrict ads to pages with neutral content. As e-consultancy states perhaps it is time for a rethink among media buyers. Advertising online can be cost-effective, but agencies need to ensure clients are aware of the potential pitfalls. Advertisers should recognise that cheaper advertising can result in poorer targeting, which has been the case with Facebook.
It’s been speculated that the brand advertising on the BNP Facebook pages arose from advertisers purchasing ‘blind’ or across the run of the network – ads appearing on randomly chosen pages – with the perhaps inevitable results which have attracted so much attention.
This is a serious issue for Facebook, who have reportedly doubled their advertising rates since February this year for a 3 month placement. But it also draws attention to the fact that for now advertising on social networking sites remains a riskier proposition than in traditional media. And regulating online content will continue to be a contentious issue.
A new model will emerge over time, one that ensures advertisers concerns are recognised. It is important that agencies ensure their clients are briefed on the opportunities together with the attendant risks.