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Social Media: Advertisers, Proceed With Caution

Posted: 01/20/12 11:11 AM ET

Over the past five years, something subtle but important happened. In business speak, Facebook's primary stakeholders went from being users to being advertisers. Bluntly, Facebook transformed from a service that makes you happier into a service that makes advertisers happier -- often at your expense. While there may be an end scenario where the interests of both groups are evenly balanced, we're still a ways away. And there's always the argument that it makes no sense to complain about a free service from which you get benefit.

This speaks to a larger trend that social media as a whole is grappling with -- Twitter itself took years to figure out a business model. Everyone wants to use it, but no one wants to pay for it. Since it has to be paid for, advertisers have to step in, but advertising on social media is still too young to even be called immature.

We need to step back and remind ourselves what the core of social media is: it's a platform that lets people share information with one another. To daily users, this means engaging with their friends, or at least keeping tabs on them.

Recently, marketers have been given a provisional seat at the table, through branded Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. While social media can be confusing, there's one fundamental truth about the new state of things: advertisers now have a direct line of communication to people who may be interested in what they have to say.

This is a big change. Advertising, for most of its history, has gone out of its way to interrupt and make itself known. It may make broadcast television possible, but it also intrudes on the experience every few minutes. Now customers are often asking to be talked to.

So what do advertisers say? It depends on the brand and its customers. Some customers want better deals, some customers want to know about new products, and some customers want reinforcement of the lifestyle the brand lets them buy into. Each desire requires a different strategy, and any two customers might want different things out of the brand.

As it stands, Facebook and Twitter aren't robust enough to allow this level of segmentation, but that will probably change. In the meantime, marketers will need to use the channel in a way that will add value to most of their fans. When they don't, the customer's good will is squandered, they're annoyed, and they will 'unlike' or suppress the brand.

On Twitter, where accounts live and die by their number of followers, the "I'll follow you if you follow me back" dynamic has undermined follower count as something worth keeping too close an eye on.

For marketers, these somewhat harsh realities shouldn't be the end of the world. Because social media's tech-related, there's a big push to use that tech to collect metrics. It just so happens that retweets and Facebook likes are easy to measure -- but not necessarily meaningful or accurate.

Instead, marketers on social media should ask the simple question: how can we use these tools to bring value to our customers? We need to go back to basics and ask what marketing is supposed to do, and then look at how to do it best with these new inexpensive tools. It's both that simple and that difficult.

While fine-grain metrics and the ability to measure the actual ROI of each and every tweet may be on the horizon, we're not there just yet. Marketers will instead have to settle for speaking directly to the people they're most likely to influence. There's tremendous value in that, let's not lose sight of it.