Explaining Social Media`s Friendship Ranks

Social advertising network Social Media thinks it has found a way to make online advertising more effective and less offensive by making it social. It may be doing exactly the opposite. Keep reading to find out more.

It’s always interesting, when something I find groundbreaking is entrenched in something I don’t really care for. Where I love the technology, but hate the vehicle. Yes, we are still talking about social networking, the new IPO multi-billion-dollar extravaganza buzz-word of the late 2000s, primarily based on advertising to keep costs down, and definitely, without question, always in your face.

So you know where I am coming from, when an adult asks me, “Do you have a MySpace page?” I laugh, and say, “What are you, 13 years old? No, I have real sites, meant for real purposes.” Plus, I’m not very social anyway, which is a bit strange for a PR guy, but frankly I enjoy not leaving the house for days at a time. Today, for example, is day five. But I do like money, and the Internet is all about the money, so I like to keep up on new developments.

As we have all come to know, the advertising is not going away. So the real question is, what is the next step in quantifying this process? And the answer of course, is to streamline the process: ideally offering “wanted” or “relevant” information to a particular, and more to the point, specific demographic. Think about how many times you are pushed advertisements for things you would not even consider, like diapers for people without children, or pet food, for those with no pets.

Well, Social Media has a thought, and a product as well, ready to unveil called “Friendship Ranks.” This advertising technology is based on analyzing and finding those people most popular on social networks, and using them to push ads and messages, using a type of “pass-it-along” technology. This type of technology is basically looking for the next Tela Tequila (MySpace legend), or other self-proclaimed Big Man on Internet (BMOI), that can stimulate commerce like wild fires. Social Media states their audience as being primarily between 18-34 years old, which I find to be a bit high. I might have guessed it to be between 8-16 years old myself, but maybe this is just more marketing speak, as data collection from children is always an extremely sensitive issue.

Social Media’s FriendRank, a patent-pending algorithm, works very much like Google’s PageRank, in evaluating social advertising banner placement, and determining not page popularity, but friendship popularity. By examining the relationship between how users surf within MySpace, Bebo or Facebook sites, Social Media is attempting to gauge around 100 of a user’s closest relationships, and harness this information to deliver higher conversion rates on advertising, for advertisers.

Well, no, this is definitely not an Internet popularity contest. What FriendRank is really doing is more like an attempt to push advertising as if it were not directly from sponsoring companies, but instead from your friends or co-workers. They do this by using a variety of information-gathering techniques, like digging into Facebook information (within established privacy policies) and drawing relationships with those you have interacted online, either in Facebook, MySpace, or even playing games, or sharing files.

An example of how this might work goes like this: instead of advertising, say, the new Coldplay album, it would ask you to list with which of your online friends you would like to share your feelings about the album. The same banner could be shown to this list stating that you, as the referring sender, have rated it highly (or poorly as the case might be) while of course providing a link to reviews, and to buy that CD immediately.

Social Media also says that someone is nearly 200 times more likely to purchase an item sent via a social networking device versus traditional online advertising. In an advertising experiment, Social Media tested this theory with those with a budget over $100,000, explaining how to customize aspects of the BMW 1 Series, to create a VR Test Drive. At the same time, these social banners would be delivered to the person’s list of close friends, stating that the sender was currently taking a test drive, and then offer you the ability to quickly join the referrer, creating your own test drive.

So it sounds very cool but the historical background behind advertising developments is rife with problems. First, people are not very excited to see any form of advertising on the Internet, especially when they are in the middle of tasks or communications. Another issue is the inherent question of usability of these targeted sites where content is primarily controlled and often misused by children. This inherently creates risqué areas and controversial topics/images that advertisers might not want to see their advertisements around.

Imagine yourself as an advertiser, with a great, new and fantastic “green” cleaning product, finding your ad next to someone stating that Global Warming is not only a myth but outright scandal as well. Or pet food, next to someone who has a problem with PETA. It doesn’t seem to add up, does it? It seems a bit hard to control, as Social Media is definitely all about volume. To date, it has ramped up to serve over three billion ads per month (to an estimated 20 million unique users), divided by geographic, demographic and appographic boundaries.

What is an appographic boundary? This is a term that Social Media itself came up with to signify a new way to classify people based on the types of applications they use and how they use them. Social Media’s appographics are based on over 5,000 available company applications, driven by 900 developers. According to Social Media, the definition of appographic segmentation is the ability to target impressions to specific groups of applications that fulfill the advertiser’s needs.

Facebook ran into industry and member disdain in regard to privacy concerns upon launching its “Beacon” service, used to dig into eBay and Yelp; it was set up so that, when the social site’s members used one of these online application services, Beacon would alert friends via their subscribed news feeds. Reaction was so negative that Facebook backtracked to an opt-in only format for members, cutting use dramatically.

In a nutshell, Beacon was publicizing “real-world” commerce and net activity on external sites, to the user’s friends. As we all know, the online presence we create for ourselves, and our normal everyday activity, can be two very different and conflicting items.

So, the differences between Beacon and FriendRank are smartly structured, where there is no direct draw of information from third-party sites. FriendRank does use friendship data and “breadth of pull” to initiate their marketing messages. This may or may not be enough to squash this attempt at social networking advertising before it ever gets started.

Truthfully, it’s not much different from the historical use of data collection cookies. It’s just much more visible. And it’s in that visibility where Social Media needs to be careful, as it could make or break their social media advancement.

What was learned from the Beacon semi-fiasco was the need to be very clear about what was happening, and always allow users to opt out of any sort of  social networking that involves advertising delivery. Social Media has planned for this argument as well, offering an easy information click button and opt-out link on each social banner shown.

What’s not entirely clear regarding Social Media and FriendRank is the reason a normal (or even advanced) user would ever aspire to helping a money-rich advertising company do anything.

I don’t think any of us relish the opportunity to be exposed to any more advertising than necessary, and I really doubt that any of us want companies sending advertisements to our friends, under the guise that we “wanted” it sent to them. Frankly, I don’t want anyone to receive anything I did not personally decide to send. I can also tell you that I have only used the standard “send this to a friend” button like twice in my life, and that’s a very simple version of what Social Media is attempting to do.

Now, if there were any sort of payment coming to me from the purchases made by my deep list of controllable friends, I might consider it, but even then I still doubt it. I don’t ever put Google links or any other type of CPC, CPP, CPM or external link on any of the sites I control. Why would I clutter up my beautiful sites with external advertising so I can make a couple of bucks a month? Hell, my customers would probably pay me more money to NOT do something like this.

To date, there is not any mention of kickback to referrers, or any benefit to belonging to, or supporting, any new type of social media advertising. The longstanding Amazon Affiliate program at least gives you a direct financial reason to even consider it in the first place, and I think it would make a ton of sense for Social Media to do something of this nature. But of course, that’s less money they get to keep, so I suppose that makes some sense as to why it’s not part of their business model.

Frankly, even though I’m hardly an Internet architect, I figure it’s going to have to be an included part of the process before this can become an entrenched part of normal activity. I mean really, why would I do anything to help anyone sell anything, if I’m not being paid to do so? Or in other words, don’t use my relationships to pitch your goods (which probably aren’t that good anyway), because I think it’s very invasive.

I also truly believe that right now, Social Media is headed toward taking advantage of various external site members and their ignorance of the purpose of the site they are on, and what it’s actually for in the first place. As the great fictional character Peter Gibbons once said in the movie Office Space, “It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime; so where’s the motivation?”

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