Populist Search vs. Social Media

Once in awhile I try to write a column for the media buyers and planners, the original target audience of MediaPost, which has since expanded considerably. This one’s for them, and anyone else who’s interested in social media planning, which is a lot less revolutionary than search. The full column’s in the extended entry or at the above link. If you’ve done campaigns on MySpace and YouTube, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

The column:

Populist Search vs. Social Media

By David Berkowitz

SEARCH ENGINE MARKETING MIGHT SEEM
old-hat and mainstream compared to emerging social media channels, but
search’s auction-based media buying is far more revolutionary. Despite the hype
surrounding the new social advertising channels, however, some of the largest
deals lately have involved sites that rebuild barriers to entry that search
marketing demolished. The future of advertising might look like a mashup of the
past.

One of the most radical things about search engine marketing is
that anyone can take part in it. To start, you generally need a credit card, $5
for a setup fee, a basic Web site, and Internet access. For just $1 a day, you
can start making the phone ring, and if your business can scale, you can wind up
spending over $1 million a month with search.

Spending more money on search marketing (not factoring in the use
of agencies or technology) buys more reach and frequency, rather than perks or
discounts off the rate card. For search advertising itself, the market sets the
price, and advertisers can only buy more or less of it; beyond that, advertisers
can then work to buy it more efficiently.

The populist dreams of search marketing haven’t been perfectly
realized so far in terms of every last mom-and-pop business joining in, but the
search engines have come a long way. Additionally, through services like
pay-per-call advertising and some types of mobile marketing, advertisers don’t
even need a Web site, dropping one more barrier to entry. With any advertiser
being able to take part in the efficiencies of auction-based media online, the
democratization of marketing is undeniably real.

While search marketing is still in its early stages–it’s hardly a
decade old–much attention now is turning toward social media, which is hailed
as the future. Yet the future, by some indicators, looks more like the past when
compared to the auction-based system. As examples, we’ll turn to MySpace and
YouTube, which together have reached $2.5 billion in deals with Google this year
(the former through an advertising partnership, the latter through acquisition).
There are some notable differences between buying with the new players and
buying on Google.

The biggest differences are evident when you consider what more
money buys you. On a basic level, it’s possible to run text-based contextual ads
on YouTube and MySpace for little money and with little effort. Yet by buying
well into the five figures of display media on MySpace, you can have a custom
profile that includes videos, mobile downloads, IM content, basic Flash content,
and other features; six-figure spending levels buy even more features, including
mashups, personalized photos, and RSS and podcast feeds. Similarly, YouTube is
looking to do media deals at a certain five-figure threshold, and it sets
six-figure thresholds to let marketers own custom channels.

It’s a far cry from the auction-based system, and these buys lend
themselves much more to martini lunches than market efficiencies. That should be
very comforting to some. It’s a sign that while every medium will likely flirt
with the auction-based system and perhaps even adopt it for a large chunk of
inventory, media buying and planning skills will remain relevant. Some media,
such as a souped-up MySpace profile, don’t lend themselves well to auctions. If
that means some smaller businesses can’t advertise there as well, those
advertisers will still be welcomed by the search engines.

Auction-based media, as exemplified through search engine
marketing, won’t replace the old models. To enable online properties with an
audience and a compelling advertising vehicle to reach users en masse, a
traditional media deal established at a set price and settled with a handshake
may be the most efficient kind of buy. The bigger challenge will be for Google,
which has earned its billions through auctioning media and now finds itself
selling media the old-fashioned way.

That the future will resemble the past shouldn’t be so surprising.
Social media is media, after all, no matter how you sell it.