Paying to play on social media

With many brands now being forced to pay for the pleasure of plying their wares on social media channels, Dom Burch from Asda explores the intersection between traditional PR and native advertising.

Of the dozen or so predictions that caught my eye at the start of the year, one stood out as being a pivotal moment in the fledgling field of social media marketing – or 21st century PR as some of us still like to think of it.

And it was these three words: Pay. To. Play.

Even before the year was out, earned media was dying before our very eyes.

Organic reach on Facebook in particular was deteriorating by the day.

So whereas previous engagement strategies meant our content if relevant and timely would touch vast numbers of people more or less for free, suddenly over night it dropped off a cliff.

Whether you like it or not paying to play has become a requirement for brands who wanted to engage with an audience of any great size or to any great degree.

The purists among us (probably fellow long-term PR practitioners like me) were slightly miffed by this development.

Having cut our teeth over the years writing clever news stories with punchy headlines, and pun-laden quotes, we grew used to the idea that earning coverage – be that social or traditional – was our God given right.

So the idea we now needed to pay to reach an audience we had spent years growing and nurturing, all seemed a bit unfair.

But even in the old PR world we could have chosen to pay to play if we really wanted to.

The truth was advertorials never really took off as they were a bit naff, and didn’t offer enough measurable value in return.

Facebook changed all that.

Promoted posts in your mobile newsfeed looked and felt like content from brands you were already following. Granted the first few attempts looked a bit crude, and the targeting was a bit blunt. But now millions of users are engaging with brand led content in their newsfeeds every day. And for the brands who get it, the value is obvious to see.

The plain facts speak for themselves.

On Facebook’s fabled tenth anniversary the social world lit up with infographics vying for the chance to tell you amazing numbers like:

757million – the number of Facebook users who log into the social networking service or share content through it on any given day.

1.2bn – the monthly active users on the platform worldwide.

But surely the end is nigh? Facebook has over-commercialised its platform. People are sick of the newsfeed being clogged up with stuff they don’t want to see. Maybe.

Or maybe not.

According to Pew Research the monthly user base (defined as those who accessed the site at least once in the previous 30 days) grew by 4.1 per cent in the US and Canada last year, by 8 per cent in Europe and by a staggering 23.5 per cent in Asia (including Australia and New Zealand). In the rest of the world it also grew by 23.7 per cent.

The rapid rise in users engaging with Facebook via their smartphones and tablets is also notable. In December 2013 the company reported 945 million monthly active users worldwide accessed Facebook via a mobile application or a mobile version of the site, up 39 per cent from December 2012. Of those 945 million, nearly a third (296 million) were mobile-only users.

And with Whatsapp and Instagram now within its ranks, the future social space seems pretty secure for Facebook the Corporation, regardless of the current noise surrounding its original product.

The trend toward paid-for content appearing alongside organic content in my view signalled the beginning of the end of traditional consumer led media relations.

And our recent experience on YouTube with the launch of Mum’s Eye View has done nothing to dissuade me that that trend is continuing at pace.

Since its launch at the end of March (and at the time of writing) the first five videos have commanded more than 450,000 views on the channel, and collected more than 22,000 subscribers.

What’s more every product featured is available at Asda, so every link in the description box takes you to an online destination where you can purchase them from.

And what’s more not one penny has been spent on advertising to drive any of those views, any of those subscribers, or any of those clicks to asda.com. Be that on YouTube or anywhere else for that matter.

Paying to play yes, but investing in an asset by collaborating with established YouTube content creators who have already earned their audience.

This post was originally featured on The Drum.

Dom Burch is senior director for marketing innovation and new revenue at Asda. He has worked for the supermarket since September 2002 and has held a number of comms and marketing roles in that time, including head of PR and head of social. He graduated from Leeds Met in 1998 with a degree in public relations, had a short summer intern stint at Saatchi & Saatchi before joining Green Flag Motoring Assistance, then Direct Line two years later. He is a member of the CIPR's social media panel, and was a contributing author to Share This Too, the social media handbook for PR professionals. He volunteers with BCB 106.6FM in Bradford, and supports Reading Football Club (for his sins).

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