Back then, we were all getting over the disappointment of WAP and other first generation web technologies - online marketing was in its infancy. Back then it was all banner ads and pop-ups until we all figured out that a) people were downloading lots and lots of ad blocker programs and b) the ads themselves were of negligible impact because the reach of the medium was quite poor. Five years on and the online digital experiment has changed quite a bit. Ad targeting has improved immeasurably and the range of measures for online campaigns is now so vast, many struggle to keep up with the latest trends.
In recent years, online advertisers have been able to rely on new targeting technologies (mainly cookie and / or content based) to help promote their ads across vast online networks. Google changed the game with their adwords program and now almost every business will be using some sort of online advertising and communication to promote their wares. These vast online advertising networks stretch far and wide across the web and one place they specialise in targeting are the User Generated Content (UGC) sites, forums, bulletin boards and chat rooms right around the world.
UCG attracts a multitude of users from around the world but very little advertising on these sites is “placed”. Most is brought as part of a package and the content against which you advertise is largely up to the site as opposed to the buyer. Of course the danger with throwing your online advertising out there without any say as to where it is being placed is now blindingly obvious yet until last week many UK brands didn’t understand this.
Last week, big brands such as Vodafone, T-Mobile, Virgin Media, Halifax, the AA, First Direct and even the UK Government were forced to pull advertising on Facebook after their ads were seen running against sites for the British National Party (a racist right wing organisation). Whilst Facebook are now offering UK advertisers an opt-out option for sites such as these (to be rolled out across other markets later on), this is the obvious risk that advertisers are taking when they have no clue on the type of content their ads will run next to. This incident in unlikely to be the only one of its type and many agencies are now going to be struggling to work out how they respond to this issue.
The great prize with UGC is that it supposedly offers much higher levels of engagement than other channels. An almost endless supply of fresh copy enables sites to grow quickly and capture hours of users online time at little cost – certainly no expensive journalists to worry about. However this also means is that there is little or no editorial control over what is being viewed, written about and discussed.
For advertisers, UCG is an interesting place to be although whether the benefits go beyond just getting another set of eyeballs is debatable. For UGC websites, these type of issues start to undermine the enormous values being placed on these companies. Google paid an amazing sum for youtube ($1.65bn - but much of this was paper money anyway i.e. a stock swap) whilst News International paid $580m (cash?) for MySpace. These valuations are almost exclusively based on potential and forecast ad revenues. Allegedly Facebook has not been sold because the valuation placed on the business is $8bn whilst organisations such as Microsoft only value the business at $6bn (see http://www.marketingweek.co.uk/item/57164/343/298/3). Such valuations are dependent on reliable revenue streams that will increase at a significant rate.
Whether these valuations take a knock after the Facebook débâcle remains to be seen. For my money, issues such as these reinforce the place of traditional media owners online. Groups like the FT, News International, Economist and Guardian have all embraced web 2.0 type interactivity but in each case, content may be vetted and advertisers are reasonably sure that their messages will reside in a suitable place. For those advertisers embracing UGC advertising, caution is recommended!