27 May 2011

Are Social Media and SEM really "advertising"?

In an early post, you can read that “the ‘ad’ in Ad Majorem means all marketing communications, from social media to direct mail to Internet gaming to television commercials. To most consumer audiences all of these are advertising.”

Today we’re going to debate that statement a little.

Is Social Media advertising?

On The Social Graf blog, Erik Sass noted yesterday that in recent IPOs for LinkedIn and Zynga, advertising revenue was not a big factor. LinkedIn makes almost half of its money from headhunting and job-finding services; Zynga makes 80-90% of its revenue by selling virtual goods. Does this mean “advertising takes a back seat”?

The question is not whether Social Media is advertising or is putting it in the back seat. They have a symbiotic relationship; great advertising has always driven positive word-of-mouth. The only difference today is that social media has turbocharged word-of-mouth. Maurice Levy of Publicis tripped over this dynamic the other day when he said “Recommendation and endorsement from a friend is sometimes more powerful than the greatest ad.” No, not "sometimes" – always more powerful than the greatest ad.

Word-of-mouth is advertising – advertising we can only hope to influence, never control.

Is SEM advertising?

Meanwhile, over on AdAge’s DigitalNext column, Josh Shatkin-Margolis says we should “Stop Pretending That Search Engine Marketing is Advertising”. He actually made a great distinction in his second paragraph: “SEM is the worst form of advertising, but bear in mind that it is the best form of targeting.” True enough. No one will claim that unclicked search copy is effective. Cheap? Yes, as in “the impressions are free.” You get what you pay for.

Yet is there any reason a consumer would not call this advertising just because it neither promises nor delivers a memorable, persuasive message? I don’t think so. We’re splitting hairs with some of these discussions.

Another headline this week proclaimed that “Google Passes Yahoo in Online Display Advertising”. So are we going to say that Google’s online display is advertising, while the search copy just pixels away is not?

What is advertising? What isn’t?

A wise colleague, now retired, used to say, “Everybody’s selling something, boitshick.” This is true of both search and display. Social Media, too, although it’s a little different because we are counting on consumers to help us do the selling. To those consumers, however, it’s all advertising.


  1. Linking the two is like comparing apples and oranges. SEM is pure advertising. Too often not very effective advertising. But it is advertising.

    Social media are just media. Which can be used for social or business reasons, including advertising (and is overused for that). And is radically different too, though often confused by journalists with, Social Networking (that can also be business networking, which I guess is why we are here!)

  2. Practitioners of advertising simply need to recognize that running a brand's message adjacent to the content is simply not good enough anymore. Consumer decisions are influenced *in* the content, not next/nearby/alongside it. Should we explain it any further? That's all the it there is to it.

  3. Well said, Miguel -- totally agree.

  4. Enjoyed the post, Steve. What I would suggest, however, is that most traditional advertising as we know it is a 1-way conversation where brands are advertising TO and AT people. It also interrupts people during the course of their life and tries to wedge its way in with a "buy this" message. You can't give and take with most billboards unless it's a cool interactive billboard (which I don't mind seeing more of).

    You'd be harder pressed to literally call social media and SEM "advertising" - yes, we want people to notice us and trust us and engage us and buy us and be our advocates when we do well. Yet, I don't think you could ever say that you're "advertising" when doing that because the conversation is completely different. I suppose some of this may seem like splitting hairs on terminology, but when we're talking about a different way of communicating and building relationships, just lumping it all in together as "advertising" feels a little strange to me.

    That said, regardless of whatever we call it, it's more important that advertising, social media and SEM can work beautifully together in harmony for brand building when it makes sense to use them - rather than looking at the options as an "either/or."