But despite its hiccups, and excesses, it was the story of 2007. It’s Facebook. If you haven’t heard of it, Facebook is a social networking website that became all the rage, and now threatens to become a cliche, all in the space of less than one calendar year, for most of the online world. The premise is simple: find your friends, and help them find you by creating your own page. You also update your friends using a status bar, so it is like a live news feed of what everyone is doing.
While it is part of my job to know about such websites, as a consumer I may develop a healthy cynicism about social networking sites. I have signed up for quite a few, and lost interest over time. But I must admit, that the instant a good friend invited me to Facebook, I was hooked. I remember I used to change my status bar everyday, and that I got very excited about discovering another friend I haven’t met for fifteen years, and had a college crush on. I know people who are not going to work and instead spending time on Facebook. Others delete ex-boyfriends from their list of friends, in the ultimate act of women’s lib. And I’ve reached a point where I’m getting tired of meaningless forwards and being chomped by vampires and wondering what is wrong with the sequence AAA, BBB, CCC…
For the uninitiated, Facebook is a social networking site where you can find friends from your past, and make new ones. It’s not novel as an idea, but it got a fillip because its creators allowed other companies to add their own software applications, and earn revenues from people using those applications. In 2007, companies were also allowed to add their own brands to the website, thus they could jockey amongst themselves to try to cash in on word of mouth. The credibility of Facebook lies in your friends inviting you to download new apps or try new things, and it is, in the most literal sense, advocacy or extreme word of mouth, which we all know is the most effective form of marketing. Facebook kept evolving, offering new things to its members nearly every day. Today there are applications where you can poke and prod each other, see how hot your friends think you are, where you can trade your friends like stocks, and video walls where people can post all kinds of crazy stuff…(I remember seeing some ancient public service ads from India in the 1980s and getting all goose-bumpy)
Facebook has grown from a website with one function, to becoming a mainstream lifestyle choice online. It’s eating into time people would spend on other sites: people are playing pub games on it, challenging each other to scrabble, forming groups and clubs, donating to charities….it would be one of the paradigms for how portals should evolve in the future, as we start to look at web 3.0…
The magic of the internet space, amongst other things, is its speed. It can make millionaires overnight (at least in Silicon Valley, if not yet the Klang Valley). Sites become flavour of the month, become intrinsic to our lives, and then new ones come to take their place. Even by the superfast standards of internet time, though, Facebook is an exception, an outlier on the curve. I am fascinated by that question: what propels a brand from one end of the product life-cycle, namely, early adoption to maturity (ala Facebook) to near product disuse (Linked In, another networking site, for instance, in my life) in such a short period of time? And what does that mean for marketers?
Is it about the attention deficit disorder in today’s youth? Or about their constant search for the new, and the speed at which they become jaded? Is it about their need to belong, and how that manifests itself? And doesn’t this restless, unsatisfied nature translate into similar behaviour in other spheres of their lives? Consider boyfriends and girlfriends, tastes in movies and music, fashion and food? How can marketers stay relevant, and is a forty five year old creative director in an advertising agency truly capable of keeping abreast of rapidly changing consumers? I don’t think it would be possible without a strong planning team and lots of research. And what about clients who recognize the sales imperative and yet need to balance investment in the brand with sales and market realities? And is it indeed cost-effective to attempt to stay so connected to consumers, or do we have to accept that as marketers we will create brands that connect with consumers in a forced, fragile and slightly fuddy-duddy manner, but that’s as good as it is going to get?
I don’t have the answers, but I think the questions are worth asking….and who knows, somewhere in Malaysia there is an entrepreneur working on a new website idea…
If I may be permitted, I shall now speak humbly for the Arachnids and the Ifs and the OgilvyInteractives of the world, along with XM of course. We digital folk live on the fringes of the mainstream ad world, and we plough what are, at times, dark and lonely furrows. Some of us have been churning out shiny new ideas and trying to sell new perspectives for over a decade now, and at times it seems like a thankless job (while at other times, I admit, we wouldn’t trade it for the orderly mainline world.)
So when we came away from the Kancils 2007 we did recognize one thing: the world has finally changed, and it is good to know that the Kancils has acknowledged that the web is now mainstream. When two interactive pieces of work, out of the six in all, were in the final shortlist for the Golden Kancil (the best of the best) and one of them won (Jangen Togel website for Nike by Compass Interactive), I felt that we had arrived a watershed point in the history of the internet in Malaysia. Make no mistake: the web, this medium which is barely 11 years old as a marketing channel in this country, is now officially on par with other channels, at least from a creative point of view.
I think it’s a moment for all who work in the digital space to feel proud, and take a collective bow. We’re no longer a tertiary medium, we have our place in the sunlight and the big boys have acknowledged us (there was no creative director from digital agencies on the Kancil jury, and yet digital won, and there were more entries in digital than in TV category).
Hopefully this achievement by one of our brethren should motivate more creative talent to enter the industry, and dream big.
BRANDING AND BANNERS
There’s a lot of debate in the online advertising world currently about what forms of online advertising are more effective than others. If you are a client today, you can resort to viral marketing, blog advertising, sponsorships, in-game sponsorships, contextual text links, branded gaming, ARG (alternate reality games), banner ads, and of course, search marketing. The latter two forms of advertising command the lion’s share of the budget, typically 80% or more.
The debate centres around the effectiveness of banners. While search marketing generates higher clicks, to the tune of about 5% (this is driving the huge growth that makes Google the world’s largest media company by market cap) this is what gives them the confidence to take on older world media like TV and print. The humble banner ad, once the pioneer in this space, still does work, even when it delivers click-throughs around 0.5 to 1%. As consumers, we barely remember when we saw the last banner, but I put that down to the lack of creativity amongst agencies.
So, while the Google story is an evolving one, the future of banner advertising is poised at a critical juncture, and its future directions are less clear. Will we move towards flash and video banners? Will click-throughs matter or can we talk about the branding impact of these ads alone? And when people find it difficult to remember TV ads, how easy will they find it to remember the last 5 banners they have seen? Contextual banners, which have content relevant to the pages of websites they appear on, and possibly interactive banners too, where you can, as you might imagine, interact with brands on banners themselves may be the solution the industry needs. There is a lot of creative opportunity as well as strategic thinking to be done here, to boost the humble mainstay of internet advertising, which even today clocks in at about 50% of online ad budgets. Some tangible measures to adopt could be: