Can Advertising Truly Be Social?

by Jason Falls |

Every time someone brings up the term “social advertising” the anal retentive word smith in me starts picking it apart. Social advertising doesn’t accurately describe banners or images that appear based on what the site knows about you. An ad for Seth Godin’s latest book showing up on my login screen because the site knows I dig marketing stuff is contextual or what I would term false-intuitive advertising. (False because no matter how much database you have on my brain, you don’t have my brain which at that moment might be on a Terry Pratchett kick.)

And, no matter what Mark Zuckerberg says, what Facebook tries with friend-spy isn’t social advertising. At its worst, it’s privacy invasion. At best, it’s tattle-telling.

Further, an advertisement that is so compelling, so unique and so engaging you would tell your friend about it over lunch (“Dude! Did you see the new GoPhone Meat Loaf ad with his teenage son lip syncing and head bopping? Glad I wasn’t eating when I did. It’s like an invitation to vomit.”) isn’t social advertisement, either. It’s word of mouth marketing.

Oh, it’s online? Then it’s word of mouse marketing.

But still, people are trying. MediaForge has a fairly neat development they claim puts conversation in conversational media. It’s a display ad (a banner or box advertisement) that on roll-over becomes an interactive widget. The example shown here is one for Skullcandy headphones and related accessories. It’s pretty cool and fairly useful. You can even clickety-click and the widget is on your desktop so you can track deals, always have the search function handy, etc. Other uses include tabs for the widget that contain video players, interactive games and so on. In addition to pulling the widget onto your desktop, you can also place it on the profile pages of your social networks.

Pardon the interruption for a moment, but would someone please tell me why advertisers think anyone is going to muddy up their Facebook or MySpace profile with a flippin’ advertisement for them? Are you giving me money for me hocking your wares? No. So stop acting like this is a selling point. If I’m a brand enthusaist of yours, I’ll put your logo, or product shot, tastefully done, on my page, but that’s it. Give me a badge to wear that makes me proud, not a flashing neon light that says, “I’m a big dope who LOVES this crap so much I’m gonna try and hock it to my friends.”

Sorry. Get carried away sometimes. (And yes, I know I just embedded one in my blog, thus defeating my argument. No one said I was always smart. But I’m the only one with the password!)

MediaForge claims this nifty little gadget adds a social dimension to banner ads. It doesn’t. But it could.

First, let’s define social. According to, the top definition is, “pertaining to, devoted to, or characterized by friendly companionship or relations.” The other definitions all say essentially the same thing.

Where is the friendly companionship or relations in MediaForge’s nifty widget ad banner clickety thing? I can send it to my friends? Then I’m social, not the ad. That’s word-of-mouth (or mouse). So what would make this little number truly social? If the pop-up either is or contains a tab for a live chat with a customer service rep or even other consumers logged into that companies chat rooms, then the ad is social.

But there’s still the interruption mechanism that drives it. I don’t have to roll over the ad. I don’t have to even notice it. In fact, because I’m a savvy web user, I probably wouldn’t if I happened on a page containing one. So there are social elements happening within this little micro site the ad brought me to, but the ad still has to get me there and isn’t social.

Can an advertisement be, at it’s base level, truly social? Maybe one day.

Imagine logging on to your favorite blog. Its server knows your IP address and reads your cookie. Based on public data it has gathered, it displays a banner advertisement that is a chat window with a picture of a laptop computer, let’s say it’s a Mac. The prompt, both text and voice then says and types, “Hello Jason. Welcome back to ReadWriteWeb. We noticed from your Twitter feed you’re shopping for a new laptop. We know you’re a PC guy, but we think you would love the experience of owning a Mac. Can we answer any questions for you?”

And, being an ad for Mac, the damn thing would spit out a plane ticket to Guyana and serve you the Kool Aid right there in the comfort of your own home.

(I’m kidding. I love Macs. I just like to kid. Please stop trying to burn down my house. I have the license plate numbers of all the Volkswagens in town.)

Until the technology and/or the staffing is available for highly interactive, highly personal experiences within an advertisement, they won’t be social. But just in case I’m wrong, please pass this blog post on to your friends.

Thanks to Lee Odden of Online Marketing Blog for the inspiration for this post.

About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).