The recent flameout of Facebook's introduction to the stock market should be a cautionary tale to any onlinebusiness. One the main reasons that the Facebook stock tanked was that days before they went public, GM pulled its advertising because they weren't getting a return on their investment.
This sent a shock wave throughout all corners of e-commerce cyberspace. How can you not benefit from having access to over a billion Facebook users?
The answer is simple: The online advertising business model doesn't always work... and it shouldn't be the main business model for your startup.
The Big Fail
On many levels, the fail of online advertising is paralleling the fail of traditional television advertising. Thanks to DVRs, viewers are able to zap through commercials with ease. There are even devices being specifically marketed that will "hop" over commercials.
Naturally, this has the broadcast networks in an uproar. How can they justify ad rates if no one is watching the ads?
The same thing is happening online.
When a user logs on they're on a mission. They have a specific activity they are engaging in whether that's sending an email, playing a game or checking their friend’s newsfeed. More than anything, the internet is becoming a social networking site that is equal parts global and local community based.
Anyone who is spending their free time on the internet doesn't want to be advertised to.
A New Way to Brand
Foisting a message onto an internet user who hasn't asked for that message is destined to fail.
Because we don't need a message we can find for ourselves. A company brand can no longer be built by specific messaging alone.
It will be built by the number of "likes" on a Facebook page or amount of Twitter followers. Now that everyone gets to share their opinions on places like Yelp, a good review is often more important than a traditional ad.
We share what we like and that's how the popularity of a product, a movie, a book or a restaurant grows.
Finding Information in the Cyber Age
The greatest tool on the internet is also the great undoing of the advertising model. That would be the search engine. Whether you are a fan of Google, Bing, Chrome or any other search engine, we know how to get information.
If you want to shop for a new car, a pair of shoes, an appliance or just about anything else, the first stop will always be a search engine. The next stop could be one of the many review sites such as Yelp or Consumer Reports.
Nowhere in that search is advertising needed or wanted. We're becoming a society of information gatherers. That's good for the consumer but not so good for the business, unless they find a way to improve their search engine rankings.
We're also becoming very sophisticated when it comes to blocking or ignoring ads. Don't want a re-targeting pop-up ad? No problem... just delete your cookie history.
The more advertisers try to insert their messages the more the Internet user will find a way to block the ads.
Build Out the Social Network
So, what is a hapless company supposed to do to find new customers? Don't fight the internet but put it to work for your brand. If this is a social medium then find a way to engage your customer base by starting a conversation.
Suppose you're selling a cleaning product. Perhaps you can start a conversation by asking folks "What's the worst mess you've ever had to clean up?" That's not selling your product directly but allowing folks to join in on a conversation.
Once they are engaged they can be invited to try the product. In other words, think less about reaching the masses with a single message and instead redirecting that message as part of a two-way conversation. That's the power of social media networking.