Instagram promoters. Micro-influencers. Social media gurus. They are all just different ways of saying advertisers by contract, essentially. To be clear, I’m not here to argue that sponsored content is all unethical by nature. The problem I see is that advertising has taken over not only social media but our entire lives. The social media marketing phenomenon is but a symptom of a larger problem, the blurring of lines between personal life and business opportunity.
There has never been a more auspicious time for business marketing and analytics than the present. Our reality is like a business executive’s enchanted wet dreams come to life. We can be sold a product without even leaving the house! Or the couch, for that matter. Ads aren’t just on TV and billboards anymore. The other day I pulled into a gas station that had little TV screens IN THE GAS DISPENSER. I couldn’t escape it. Anyway, not only can we make purchases nearly anywhere and anytime, companies are collecting information about us and our habits at almost every moment and very likely without our consent (cough, Equifax, cough). What could go wrong?
As the saying goes, if it’s free, you’re the product. Facebook listens to you and sells your data. You know that. Google tracks your movements on the web and took out its clause about not being evil on its corporate code of conduct. Big whoop. Target once correctly predicted a woman’s pregnancy through her shopping habits and started showing her baby ads and coupons. I don’t have a snap back for this one…Let me put this to you in Big Millennial Terms™: we’re living in a Capitalist dystopian society where anything we say, do, tweet, or scorn, will be used to sell us something. People online who we thought were sharing something they were passionate about in their life turned out to be living embodiments of pop-up ads. This may lead us to question: who else is lowkey slipping in paid content? Is anybody real out there?
Nowhere is this reality as present as in our online experience. In its early days especially, sponsored content was often not disclosed. Whether due to ignorance, carelessness, or deceptive business practices, many social media users still struggle to properly disclose the material connections they have to the content they produce. In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission sent out over 90 letters to influencers and marketers warning them of this behavior. They have since provided a how-to guide on product endorsements as well as a question and answer guide on social media content.
Native advertising and content marketing have become ubiquitous social media experiences and ultimately, this contributes to a troublesome new normal for us, the blurring of lines between personal life and business opportunity, as I stated in opening. It can be hard to discern if a post contains affiliate content or advertising and some forms of marketing are made to reinforce this. Native advertising is one such example. Curata explains the purpose and scope of native advertising clearly:
Native advertising: The content may appear to provide value, but that goal is secondary to selling a product or service. Often the advertorial may try to solve a problem that conveniently involves buying the brand’s product or service. However, the content of native advertising generally does not have inherent value without the reader buying a product or service.
Done right, native advertising is incredibly effective and social media users seem to prefer it since it’s less ostentatious. Michael Gigante compiled an impressive list of 40+ Advertising Statistics for 2019 which show how important native marketing is to companies. Here is my selection from his list:
- Native advertising was the fastest-growing advertising segment, with 35 percent growth between 2017 and 2018. (eMarketer)
- 70 percent of users would rather learn about products through content than traditional advertisements. (Content Marketing Institute)
- Native ad spending is projected to increase to $41.1 billion in 2019. This means native advertising will account for 61 percent of total digital display ad spending in the U.S. (eMarketer)
Native video advertising accounts for 56 percent of video ad spending. (IAB 2018 Video Ad Spend Study)
In my view, the danger in native marketing lies in its subtlety insofar as it is unrecognisable as marketing and in its extensive promulgation. I’m simply tired of encountering this type of content everywhere I go. I think that the content we find online doesn’t accurately reflect the world we live in and I’m not the only one. The PEW Research Center published a study on Attitudes toward Algorithms: The Content People See on Social Media last year where social media users were surveyed about their emotional responses and attitudes on social media platforms.
Granted, this study is not about advertising in particular, rather it is about how satisfied or dissatisfied people are with social media algorithms and the content that is promoted to them. Another interesting figure in this study is the commentary that, “Users’ comfort level with social media companies using their personal data depends on how their data are used” as shown below.
Some 47% of respondents said that it is not very acceptable or not at all acceptable for social media sites to use their data to show them ads for products or services. Another 41% find it somewhat acceptable while a mere 11% say it’s very acceptable. In other words, we’re not feeling it, brands. We like our privacy and we like our platforms to be transparent about what they do with our data, for the most part.
Now, before you try to destroy me with a strongly-worded comment or e-mail, WordPress is no exception in the social media monetization revolution. I realise that you may actually see ads on this website and that you might have seen a pop-up about cookies. So you get the tummy tea or whatever for now. I’m sorry. Don’t click it. Better yet install Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin. These extensions are gifts from the gods.
When I started this blog (not long ago…) I chose the completely free option. At almost one month old I decided to upgrade In Via Lexington to a premium account. More options, a registered domain, fancy themes, etc. This is what I was after. Now, I have not monetized this blog and I have no plans to do so, given the entire article you just read. As I learn more about building and customizing my website I will be able to make more informed choices on what is shown on it. As I understand, only the business option will allow WordPress users to remove all WordPress.com advertising. From this description alone I do not know if they mean advertising WordPress itself (which I am fine with, this is my platform and I support it) or third party advertising working with WordPress. If you know about this please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop a link in the comments.
In closing, I have squarely expressed my distrust of and near disdain for branded and promoted content online. I admit that my article has been one-sided and focusing on the negative aspects of social media monetization without showing how positive it can be for content creators to secure a means of living and connecting with others. I have no doubt that this is a non-issue for many people and an incredibly lucrative opportunity for some. However, for people like me, we see an all-encroaching wave of advertisements and unsolicited and disingenuous content blocking out what we view as the original purpose of online communities and social media: simply sharing our personal experiences and not expecting any special reward for it or compensation. The “reward” is forging a new community and fostering long-term relationships with people we know and trust. At least, that’s how I see it.
For further reading, I recommend:
- Monetization of Social Media Influence, Usman Shaikh for US Law Group
- Social Media Use in 2018, Aaron Smith and Monica Anderson for the PEW Research Center
- Stories From Experts About the Impact of Digital Life, Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie for the PEW Research Center
- Declining Majority of Online Adults Say the Internet Has Been Good for Society, Aaron Smith for the PEW Research Center
- Everything on Social Media Is for Sale, Taylor Lorenz for The Atlantic
- People Come For Content And Stay For Community, Vanessa DiMauro for LeaderNetworks.com