Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Choose Social Networks, Choose Life

Article excerpt

All human life is there. The words, which once ran over the masthead of the News of the World, could now be used to describe social-networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo.

Over the past few weeks, many newspaper column inches have been devoted to the pitfalls of advertising on these sites. Most have focused on whether such activity is safe for advertisers, who might end up next to distasteful content, but a much bigger question is whether it is worth it in the first place.

When a brand was spotted next to a British National Party group on Facebook, a small journalistic feeding frenzy ensued, with commentators competing for the holier-than-thou spot.

But most of the sites were already addressing the issue. MySpace already had a PG rating for profiles on its site in place so that advertisers could choose to avoid appearing next to inappropriate content. Bebo doesn't run advertising on users' profile pages, so it is unlikely to be an issue, and Facebook quickly rushed out a fix, allowing advertisers to exclude ads from running on group pages - the source of the problem on the site - rather than those of individuals.

So it all looks like job done. Social networks can continue to rake in the money and advertisers can sleep at night knowing they are not appearing next to material that The Guardian and the BBC would get upset about. Except it doesn't work like this.

A huge chunk of the advertising running on these sites is bought through ad networks - sales houses that aggregate together billions of impressions from thousands of sites and sell them on cheap to agencies.

Much of this inventory is 'blind' - the agency doesn't know where the ads are going to appear - and it is commonly used as a way of bringing down the average cost of a media schedule and making it look less daunting.

But it is much harder to apply controls over content when buying media this way, and the low price reflects the fact that environment is not a primary consideration. Because whether you buy ads on social networks directly or indirectly, the chances are, it is cheap. And it's cheap for two reasons.

First, there is absolutely boatloads of it. Social networking is one of the most popular online activities in the UK, and it generates enormous audiences. Second, it generally doesn't work very well.

People who use these sites are highly engaged with the content, and are not in a consumer mindset. …