Can Social-Networking Sites Make Money?

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.

The problem was that users were enrolled in the program automatically. If a user went to, say, the Blockbuster site and rented a movie, that information was automatically sent to everyone in her Facebook network. (That's what happened to ­Cathryn Elaine ­Harris of Dallas; she is suing Blockbuster for violating the Video Privacy Protection Act.) Online petitions and negative press ensued, and the program was clumsily scaled back. On the company blog, Zuckerberg wrote, "We've made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we've made even more with how we've handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it."

Still, "Beacon is alive and well," says Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook's vice president of product marketing. "What happened was unfortunate," he says. "We took a step back and tried to figure out how to improve it." Now it's an opt-in system, and users can choose what information to share--or whether to participate at all. About 30 companies are still with the service, he says.

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