Reality Check: Brands Aren’t Publishers

Since the earliest days of advertising — and through every subsequent era of the media business — the roles of publishers and brands have been distinct: Brands built widgets; publishers built audiences; brands rented audiences from publishers.

But with the rise to dominance of social media — and the apparent ease of acquiring fans on social platforms — brands seem to think they can now be publishers too. There is a temptation to believe that the democratizing effects of the Web will mean brands can cut out the publisher middleman to go directly to audiences. The reality is they can’t.

The skills involved to build great brands are entirely different from the skills required to build great audiences. Brand building requires an endless repetition of the same set of messages; audience building requires an endless quest for fresh new content. Only a handful of content-rich, iconic brands (like Disney, McDonalds and Coca-Cola) can pull off being a publisher. Everyone else needs a more realistic strategy.

Five years ago, it was fine for a brand to create a profile on MySpace, spend $250,000 on cheap banners to promote it — and chalk up the 100,000 new-found friends as a win. Yes, these new-found friends typically stopped visiting the brand’s profile within 30 days, but the investment was so low relative to advertising elsewhere that most brands could write it off as a test.

Today’s brands are following a similar blueprint on Facebook, only this time the stakes are much, much higher. Brands have collectively sunk billions of dollars into fan acquisition, with the hope they’ll have an audience of consumers eager to buy their widgets. Yet the fans still aren’t engaging. A recent study showed that only 1 percent of fans engage with brands on Facebook.

No wonder brands are starting to grumble they’ve been sold a bill of goods.

To be fair, we can’t lay all the blame at Facebook’s door. They aren’t in the business of publishing either. They’re in the business of making software. So how are brands going to start getting value out of their investments? I think there will be two winning strategies emerge in the next 12 months.

We’re going to see the growth of a new crop of firms providing “social media optimization” services. Think of these companies doing for brands in the newsfeed what traditional SEO shops do for brands in search results. They get content in front of consumers and drive action.

SMOs will be retained by brands and their agencies to take over day-to-day management of Facebook pages and be charged with increasing fan engagement. They will apply a mix of art and science to increase fans’ engagement with a brand’s content: They’ll reverse engineer GraphRank, just like they did with PageRank; they’ll leverage Facebook’s Open Graph API to pull down every piece of available data to figure out what type of content to post, when to post it and which users to target; they’ll even use Facebook’s paid media to reactivate dormant fans.

In short, SMOs will become the outsourced publishing engines for brands in social media.

We’re also going to see a lot more collaboration between brands and publishers on Facebook. The reason is simple: audiences are overwhelmingly more engaged than brands’ audiences. Just look at the data below.

Of the top 50 most-talked-about pages on Facebook, only three are what Madison Avenue would consider to be traditional brands. The other 47 are a diverse mix of traditional publishers, sports teams, social games, entertainment franchises, celebrities and athletes. What ties them all together is that they are the dominant audience builders on Facebook. Its inevitable that brands will seek out ways to tap into their fan bases.

We’ll see brands pay these publishers to do branded posts and license their marks for use in Facebook ads. They will post on their own pages and pay publishers to re-post to their fans. We’ll even see brands buy Sponsored Stories to maximize the sharing.

In time, brands will come to see that renting publishers’ audiences works as well or even better on Facebook as it does elsewhere in media. And they’ll go back to doing what they do best — making widgets.


Arnie Gullov-Singh is CEO of Adly, a social media advertising network.

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