Can Social-Networking Sites Make Money?

Advertising on Google works because visitors come to Google looking for specific information. If a user who types "scooter" in the site's search field is hoping to buy a scooter, the keyword ads that appear at the right of the search results can be more useful than the results themselves. In social networks, on the other hand, users show up to find friends; ads are, at best, irrele­vant to that goal. The click-through rates on social-­networking sites bear this out. While around 2 percent of Google users actually click on a given ad (and the number is much higher when users are conducting searches for purchasing reasons), fewer than .04 percent of Facebook users do, according to a media buyer's report obtained last year by the Silicon Valley blog Valleywag.

Users in the Crosshairs

When social-media insiders are asked how advertising could capture users' attention, they always answer, "Targeting."

Targeting is at the core of traditional advertising; apparel manufacturers advertise in Vogue, for example, to reach readers interested in fashion. In the case of social-networking sites, targeting means sifting through the data in your profile to get an idea of what you're interested in. Social networks know more about you, your preferences, and your behavior than most businesses, and profiles are generally considered, in the words of former Fox Interactive Media executive Ross Levinsohn, "digital gold." Mining that gold is the best way for a social-networking site to make money--but, given users' attitudes toward privacy, the trickiest.

Startups that help advertisers and marketers better target the users of social-networking sites are fashionable investments for venture capitalists in North America and Europe. Such startups hope to sell advertisers detailed information about individual social networkers. They include the brand-new 33Across (which we profile in our list of 10 notable startups, which begins on page 50) and the more established Finnish company Xtract, which counts Vodafone, T-Mobile, and Blyk among its customers and has begun selling its software to advertising agencies and online marketers and publishers.

For social-networking sites, targeting will necessarily entail getting "between" users, as Seth Goldstein put it. You come to a social network because you are interested in your friends; ergo, the thinking goes, in order to get your attention, advertisers need to let you know what your friends are buying or thinking about buying, or they must somehow get you to send each other ads. It's either a beautiful idea or a creepy one, depending on whether you're an ad executive or the user of a social network.

In November 2007, Facebook tried to get between its users with its Beacon program. Announcing the program in New York, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg declared, "The next hundred years will be different for advertising, and it starts today."

Beacon was an advertiser's dream--and, like many things that are good for advertisers, very annoying to ordinary folks. ­Working with commercial websites like Blockbuster and eBay, Beacon tracked Facebook users' purchases and displayed them to their friends.

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