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Advertisers Grapple With Social Media

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NEW YORK -- It would be strange for an advertising conference these days to run its course without taking up social media.

Here at the biannual gathering of the Direct Marketing Association, where the attendees are used to trading on measurable actions such as click-throughs and response rates, the social media phenomenon is particularly challenging.

"In my mind it's not about the toys," said Marc Schwartz, a strategy director of the interactive division at the agency DDB. "The key thing is to have some understanding of where the conversations are taking place and what is the right entry point."

The toys that Schwartz was referring to are the blogs, widgets, social bookmarks and the many other special features of the Web 2.0 phenomenon that have marketers excited over advertising potential but still struggling with the bottom line.

In his presentation, Schwartz admitted that that the industry has yet to divine a way to determine the impact of a social media campaign on sales figures. The problem, of course, is that building a buzz on Facebook, Ning or YouTube is inherently viral.

Those types of campaigns drive engagement and brand affinity, but those goals don't translate into a spreadsheet as neatly as the outcome of a more traditional direct-response initiative.

Advertising on the social Web, where every bit of content is fair game for comments and criticism, demands that advertisers relinquish some control over their brands, Schwartz said.

On the social Web, "no longer is the brand the sole determiner of its destiny," he said, advising his audience to focus on building the relationship between the brand and the consumer.

Consider the ways that people are now researching products before they buy. "Most consumers, instead of going to the brand directly for information, will go to other consumers," Schwartz said.

But there's also the trap of flocking to something new just because it's new. Schwartz said that he still meets with clients who have been instructed by a boss to start a Facebook campaign simply because it's the next big thing. Bad idea, he said.

But just like any other ad campaign, advertisers taking to the social Web should have a clear idea of their objectives from the outset.

"When you think about how you enter a conversation, it really starts with listening," Schwartz said. Then on the flip side, it's not enough to simply roll out a Facebook application and leave it unattended -- it is a conversation, after all.

Advertising effectively across social media requires marketers to spend time in the community to keep it engaged with the brand.

When the branded presence is tended properly, "social media provides an environment to create deep insight into consumers and their behavior in order to drive engagement and response," Schwartz said.

But just as a blog that is only updated monthly has little chance of improving its search ranking, when an advertiser ignores its social media presence, it can't expect to hold the interest of consumers.

Of course, any discussion of moving ad dollars to the uncharted social Web inevitably returns to metrics and troublesome questions about return on investment.

"The challenge I'm working on is the connection between engagement and sales," Schwartz said. "We need to start thinking more broadly about metrics."

Marketers are very good at measuring the initial impact of a branded placement, he explained, but have a hard time quantifying the ripple effect, which is really what viral marketing is all about.

To address that issue, Schwartz said that he had contacted some members of the academic community around Seattle, where DDB is based, to pin down the connection between social media advertising and sales.

As he envisions the research, it would be a statistical correlation between sales trends and the different methods of engagement marketers, such as return visits, pass-alongs and downloads.

He said that the academics he's approached have been interested, but that they have not devised a formal strategy.