(Gawkwire.com) Advertising, as we know it, needs to evolve. The next generation of Web surfers deploy popup blockers, banner blockers, and seem to have a complete disconnect when it comes to traditional forms of advertising.

The next evolution of advertising is social network advertising. There are numerous forms of social advertising from targeted banners and deals, to members displaying product recommendations with buy now links, to adding cookies into a user’s system that track their actions across a Web site’s communities listing every subject they are interested in and serving them advertising based on their likes. These can all be considered passive forms of advertising. Active forms include setting up a company account on some place like Facebook or MySpace and actively engaging the community to participate.

In passive advertising, the goal is to get clicks and then get conversions. With active advertising, the goal is to build a relationship with your potential customers and community and get people to advertise your products and services of their own accord.

The core of social advertising depends on building a level of trust between business and the customer. This trust then allows interaction between the two, in one form or another, to build a personal relationship. Once a personal relationship is established, the customer buys the product. If the customer is happy with the product, they then recommend the product within their network and the cycle starts over again with more customers.

The Good
If the product turns out to be everything the company says it is, it will be disseminate throughout the customer’s network rapidly. Many users of social networks also participate on forums, chat rooms, and the like. Gaining a fanatical customer base gives the company product evangelists who descend on these discussion groups amass. What started as a simple ad campaign, can quickly take hold of an active user base thereby making your campaign viral. Those who dare question the product get ridiculed in a way that would make the average user of Digg blush. At least that is what all the reading material says.

The Bad
Unfortunately, social network advertising is a double-edged sword. If the customer hates the product and believes that the company hoodwinked them, then all hell will break loose. Pretty much take what was said under The Good and throw it in reverse. Instead of recommendations the purveyor of social greatness tells their friends to shun the company and to tell everyone they know about how evil, manipulative, and horrid that company is. Those who speak up about how much they like a product get pummeled with accusations of being an affiliate of said company in disguise. The money spent on the ads not only yields very few customers, but launching a Web driven smear campaign.

The Ugly
eMarketer (www.eMarketer.com an e-business and online marketing research firm) released a study on the potential advertising dollars that will be spent on social networks. It estimated that worldwide spending could reach $2.5 billion by 2010 and $1.8 billion in the US alone. That is a ton of potential competition. As mentioned earlier, social network ads range from simple flyers currently being sold on Facebook to more intrusive ad banners that are set to a Web surfer’s tastes. The former is targeted based on what categories a user joined while the latter goes through a user’s personal profile and scans for the user’s interests. Some social network sites are also looking at ways of searching a user’s browser history and using the sites they previously visited as a means of finding out what the user is looking for.
What many privacy groups consider a gross breach of privacy and net etiquette could be the new rule. The major question many are pondering now is what rights does the user have when it comes to their personal information. While some are now offering opt out clauses, others, like MySpace, are holding their users’ information hostage for the ability to make more ad dollars.

Social Advertising and You
Marketing with social networks is nothing new. The principles that make social advertising work are the same principles used to perpetuate a pro-active sales campaign:

1. You must be truthful in all things. Social networks are, well… social. With multiple people talking to each other, analyzing what you say and what you do, lies can be found quite easily and will come back to haunt you.

2. If you don’t have what the customer is looking for, introduce them to another company who can make it happen. This will be explained later, but for now think of it as a little advertising for the competition will net you some influence when the user tells their friends about their wonderful experience with your company.

3. Building a rapport with the potential customer is better than making the sale. Social advertising is hard work. It takes a lot to be active on numerous social networks and to gain a reputation there for being not only an expert, but also as a trusted source of services and products. If all you are interested in is a sale or the bottom line then you will have your eye on the wrong goal and may rush a sale before it is time.

4. Never disparage your competition. It shows a lack of professionalism. By slandering your competition to a customer, you signal to them that your service isn’t good enough to go toe to toe.

5. Avoid sales jargon and be direct in your communication. Sales pitches are becoming more and more worthless as time goes on. The human mind can only store so much and when it is inundated with tons of useless sales information it will tune it all out. Instead of using catch phrases and witticisms, use common language that establishes why your service or product will fulfill a need of the customer.

6. Make the customer feel good about themselves and their decision whether it is to buy from you or not. Just because you did not make the sales this time around does not mean the customer will have no future need for you. Building client customer relationships through social networks is a long process. No sense in wasting all that time by ending things if they decide not to buy.

7. Never put yourself in a position to take away from your customers. A good sale is mutually beneficial to both parties. An agreement will only last as long as both sides are happy. You may say, Dave how is this possible in Web Hosting? It is true computers and networks fail, downtime can never truly be eradicated, however if you have an outage you are taking away from your customer, so give them something to fill in the gap. Common knowledge is giving them money back in some form. I have never been a fan of common knowledge. Give them peace of mind as well as money. Let them know what you are doing to resolve the problem, how you will prevent it in the future, and keep them updated at all times.

8. Finally, respect your customer and they will respect you. This is a catch in all things you plan on doing with your ad campaign. If your target audience doesn’t like spam, then don’t send any. If your audience doesn’t like being inundated with ads that embed sounds or music, then don’t use it. When talking with a customer do not be quick to assume you know all of the answers. Listen to them and their needs. If they have a problem with your service do not be quick to defend your service, instead ask them why and if there is a way that it can be fixed. Social networks cannot only be used to sell, but can be used as a free means of understanding what the customers want and how they want services to be delivered.

More than in any other form of advertising a social network campaign MUST be truthful. If you are not truthful you will get a mob of angry people attacking your headquarters with pitchforks and torches annihilating any chance you have of becoming truly successful. The Internet has a long memory and just about everything is preserved for posterity. Customers that complained years ago will come back to haunt you again and again. If you want practical examples of this, spend a few hours on WebHostingTalk and you will see what I mean.

If you want an excellent example on how to run your would-be social networking campaign, then take a page from the Progressive Auto Insurance playbook. Progressive found a way to make even loosing battles win the war. Whether a customer buys from Progressive or buys from a competitor they will all be equally happy that Progressive looked out for their best interests. They will tell their friends that if they are looking for a car insurance provider they should just go to Progressive. Progressive gets an influx of visitors who use their tools. They will either buy from Progressive or not. Either way they will tell their friends about Progressive. Don’t take my word for it though, check the numbers. The online comparison rate campaign started in 1996. Between the years of 1996 and 2005, Progressive grew by an average of 17 percent each year. In more sizeable numbers, Progressive made $3.4 billion in 1996 and $14 billion in 2005. Honesty and truth are valuable commodities.

Avenues of Approach  or How to Make it Work
For brevity’s sake, I am going to assume that most of you already understand banner campaigns and so forth. I will be dealing mostly with getting your message out through active marketing, mainly because there is a lot less information out there on it. Do note that a successful ad campaign uses multiple venues to maximize your target audience, provides banners with a message that is targeted at the site’s audience, is in the active voice to cause action in the audience, and above all, is not annoying. If I see another Swat the Mosquito banner I am going to cry.

Actively participating in a social network is normally free. However, like most free advertising it requires time. Each social network be it Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, WikiHow, or Yahoo! Answers, all have different ways of grabbing the attention of the users. I am going to do a quick rundown of the most popular sites and the fastest way to develop a marketing campaign that will showcase how best to use each.

Like nearly every social site now, Facebook’s links all have the no-follow tag (search engines spiders will not follow the link) so don’t be surprised that this site will not increase your search engine statistics. Facebook is also a closed, “gated” community, so any flyers you use or advertising or conversations done will not be searchable via Google or Yahoo.
Spend some time building your company profile. You are going to want to keep this handy because you will be adding it to a lot of sites. The company profile is the basest of activities and will be used when users check out your posts or groups you have sponsored and want to know more about you.
With Facebook you are going to want to get active in sponsoring groups on say Web Hosting or Development. Spend some time building up your micro community and it can pay off. After you have a good crowd of people who are interested in what you do sponsor events such as classes on Web Development or making mini-conferences on what the users want in a Host. It will give you good public relations as well as some good demographic information and it’s free. If you have forums on your own site promote your events and your Facebook group to them to get additional members.

MySpace is a challenge to get working well. In fact, MySpace’s audience is such that it might be best just to stay away for now. Niche markets might be fruitful here though. Those who can offer things such as Game Hosting, Game Guild Hosting, Templates for MySpace accounts, and graphics for MySpace accounts will do well. The demographic is mostly young teens so plan accordingly. If you are an E-Commerce Web Host you will find the crowd won’t bite, so better off wasting your time elsewhere. This same principle can be applied to MySpace’s newly formed and not yet finished social networking ads spots. Of all the communities on the Net, MySpace is one of the few who have not added an opt out clause and therefore ads will be more aggressive and might turn users against your company.

If however you feel you need a presence here, create a profile for your company and use the advanced html editing features to brand your profile like your site (same color scheme, make the layout similar etc.) Use the blog section to talk a little about the goings on and let your customers know you have a profile. If everything works well (which will be few and far between) you will have a professional looking profile page, plenty of linked friends who will sing your praises and you may even get a hit or two. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Unlike MySpace with its tons of spammers and teens looking for a quick fix of cute women, LinkedIn is a community site filled with professionals (roughly 7 million). LinkedIn is not a place to find customers. It is however a place to find business who may compliment your own and is a decent place for hiring employees and finding other businesses who can help yours. Again build a company and personal profile and talk to other professionals about getting recommendations. The more recommendations you have, the better you will look. Out of all the popular community sites, this one is one of the quickest and easiest to use. In a weekend, you will be up and running and maybe even have a recommendation or two. You won’t get a lot of traffic from here, but for the time invested you might as well use it.

The last place I am going to talk about is Flickr because its practicality might be overlooked when compared to other social sites. With other sites you basically build a profile, get people to link within you and sponsor community discussion. With Flickr you are not going to do any of that. Flickr is a community of photos and artwork.

The best use for Flickr is to post pictures on events, your data center, the internal workings of your company, etc. Say you sponsored an SEO Conference. Build a profile for that conference name and add pictures of what you did while there, the audience, etc. Make sure the pictures showcase people learning, having fun, and doing things together then post a link to your site or if the conference had its own site like say HostingCon, post a link to that. Not only will you be able to host the pictures for your own customers to see (and you can even have some great fun doing this), but those who are looking for Web Hosts will see a softer, more personable side of your business.

Banner ads will always be banner ads no matter if they are targeted by Website or targeted by a social network that zeroes in on what their users need or want. Greater advertising opportunities can be found by actively seeking ties with the community and embedding your brand name within the users’ collective consciousness.

Writer’s Bio: David Dunlap has been both a Web host industry analyst and commentator for the past eight years. Prior to his active writing career, David was a network and communications technician for four years. He currently is the Editor-in-Chief for WebHostMagazine.com

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