Social networks are places to connect with friends, family, and colleagues - they're places to have discussions, conversations, to find out what's going on in other people's lives. "Traditional" online advertising (its been around only 12 or so years) has seen success in two different contexts - search and editorial. Search ads, as we know, have built Google's wealth and power, and editorial ads (mostly banners but also some new media) mimic traditional media print ads in newspapers, magazines and the like. Let's think about the user experience and use cases and why these ads work well today.
When I'm using Google to search for something, I'm actively looking to do research, to buy, or to find out more about a specific topic. I'm highly motivated by relevant information, and if an ad looks like its relevant, I'll click it. I'm in search and explore mode, and if something is helpful to me, it makes sense to follow a link to find out more.
When I'm reading an online magazine like Wired, a blog post, or checking sports news the site knows what I'm interested in, my general demographic, and specifically what I'm reading. If I've set up a site profile, I even have history and more specific demo information, and if I've used on site search, the site knows exactly what I'm looking for. If I can be presented with an ad that makes sense in context to that learning and knowledge intake, something that can be valuable to me as an information consumer then I'll click it. The key here is the ad adds value to my experience and what I'm trying to accomplish.
So, both advertising contexts take into account what I'm looking for - the content I'm searching for or have found - and both add additional value in that context. On a social network, the content is people and peoples' actions, and that's where the trouble comes. You can't look at Facebook's pageviews and calculate clickthroughs on ads. You can't display demographically targeted ads in the middle of a conversation on MySpace. It's out of context, it's intrusive, and completely irrelevant (in that moment) to the user. John Battelle does a nice job of summing this up.
A good real life example of what happens on a social network can be found when examining a pub or bar - you're having conversations with people, new and old, getting acquainted, pulling photos of kids from your wallet. Maybe you're playing pool or watching a game on TV for more entertainment, but the discussion continues - about the pool game, or about the sporting event. Maybe you want to order a drink, or order some food. That's when you ask your friend what type of beer he's drinking, or look at the bar or taps to see what's on offer, or look at the neon signs behind the bar to see what the bar makes money on. It's not until that moment when you're looking to do something outside of a conversation that a brand really matters. And perhaps you chose the beer because you like it and have had a good previous experience with it, or its on special, or the bartender recommends it, or because you just saw an ad for it on TV while watching the game. All those factors contribute to your buying decision. But none were at all relevant while looking at your friend's newborn baby pictures, or discussing your day at work.
I think marketers and social media players have a semantic problem with the word 'media'.
From Advertising Age: "I think when we call it 'consumer-generated media,' we're being predatory." "Who said this is media? Media is something you can buy and sell. Media contains inventory. Media contains blank spaces." - Ted McConnell, general manager-interactive marketing and innovation at Procter & Gamble Co.
Apart from the fact that this guy's title is ridiculous, he's bringing up the crux of the problem. Media to an advertiser means print, radio, TV, outdoor and internet. Social media, or user-generated content is not media the same sense - it's more akin to "multi-media" in the computer world, meaning not just text, but photos, videos, audio, etc. So, if a marketer is expecting social media / consumer-generated media to have the same "blank spaces" to insert ads as other advertising media, they will continue to be sadly disappointed.
But the big question then is, are social networks worth advertising on if traditional media doesn't fit? The two-part answer is: a) no, they are not worth advertising on using either of the two proven online methods, but b) because users are there and they're engaged, there are many opportunities to talk about products and services at the right time, in the right context. The opportunities are endless, and can actually impact a buying decision much more than a traditional "read me" advertisement. I can see Facebook working towards this outside of the display ad context, but they still don't have it quite right.
But, social media advertising won't look like advertising as we know it today, and we'll be faced with standardizing new vehicles and new methods - all things marketers and agencies are just finally getting used to. This new social advertising will take on the form of a conversation, recommendation, sponsorship and/and the product validation. The same things we see in bars today - word of mouth, vendor credibility, and maybe even (in all seriousness) the Bud Light girls. All methods of adding immediate value for the user in the context of what they are trying to accomplish.