What is paid social?

That was Then
I’ve been a PPC marketer, almost exclusively, for about five years. Before that I managed online media including paid search and before that (in the late 90’s early 00’s), I was an SEO/copyeditor who occasionally booked travel and answered phones for my boss. So that’s how I got my start…SEO, which led to developing online media plans (somehow) which ultimately led to me running an online marketing department at a small shop in upstate NY.

This is now
The reason I bring this up NOW is because I’m recognizing a pattern with social media marketing that is strongly reminiscent of what happened to search marketing in those early days before you could actually pay for ads on Google or Yahoo. Yes, there was a BEFORE time.

Flashback time
Back in those days we were all SEOs, and those of us who practiced white hat SEO were appalled at the notion that you could pay for keyword-driven text ads because it corrupted the purity of organic listings. That is, however, until the huge success of a little site called GoTo.com buried banner clickthrough performance by a good mile while introducing a do-it-yourself advertising model that enabled small advertisers to thrive alongside the big budget behemoths that dominated the online ad space at the time. I used to call search marketing the great equalizer because as long as you had a decent Web site and a basic grasp of your native language, you could get your ads (or listing) up on search engines and not go broke doing it.

All good things must come to an end. As search marketing’s effectiveness became increasingly apparent, the behemoths wanted to play. When big companies start asking their agencies about a specific tactic, the game changes. Long story short – big companies are now dominating paid search making many keyword categories highly expensive for those advertisers with very small budgets. And by “small” I mean less than $10K/month. If you have $500/month then PPC on Google (and likely Yahoo) isn’t really a viable option unless you’re targeting a very small geographic market or your keywords include things like “boiler tubing” and “krusty the clown costumes.”

Get to the point, already
So, where am I going with the whole paid social thing? The social media landscape today is highly organic. In fact, it looks a lot like the organic search landscape looked 10 or 12 years ago. I think this is one of the reasons search marketers are so drawn to social media marketing (though I don’t have any definitive quantitative evidence to back up my suspicions). Bear with me here though.

Search marketers have always been social media marketers to some extent – it’s what link placement is all about. Search marketers, particularly SEOs, have always had to reach out to the larger community of whatever it is they’re promoting in order to be successful. Blogging, link placement, bulletin board posting and conference speaking have are all crucial to successful SEO. Why conference speaking? Because SEO is such a nebulous and subjective discipline that often the only way to rise above the clamor of “experts” is to gain a speaking engagement at a respected conference. Kind of sounds like social media “experts” too, huh?

Speaking engagements also mean lots of bio posts and links, it’s a feedback loop that continuously adds credibility to the expert who exists in a sea of “experts.”

Search marketing – both organic and paid – has grown up a lot since the wild wild west days of Yahoo versus Google versus Inktomi (look it up). We’re riding a new bubble now – a wave of social media that’s filling our vocabulary with verbs that used to be nouns. Things like “Tweet” and “Friend” which carry viral and word-of-mouth marketing to the extreme.

Organic Social Media
Anyone can create a Twitter account. Anyone can join Facebook. Anyone can upload a YouTube video of their 3-year-old singing “Single Ladies” and therefore anyone’s 3-year-old can be famous. Even yours. Even mine. This is organic social media. It’s been free to all users thus far ( some social media sites like LinkedIn offer premium membership fees, buth they are more of a B2B space and I’m still talking about B2C for now). Many of my clients have their own Twitter and Facebook accounts with friends/followers that they’ve built on their own. These clients typically use an intern or internal employee to create and maintain the accounts – sometimes they work with consultants or agencies to create a “social media strategy.” Up until recently, this strategy has been purely organic in nature – build a free presence on these sites, build followers, build content and push people to your own site (or brand).

In November 2007, Facebook introduced Facebook ads. They enabled businesses to create Facebook pages and generate “fans” (as opposed to “friends”) of the business, as well as more traditional image/text ads which could push visitors to these fan pages or straight to the advertisers’ sites. The benefits of a fan page are similar to the benefits of a regular (organic) Facebook page – you can post images, events, links and interact directly with anyone following the page. Does this blur the line between organic social media sites and branded, corporate (paid) social media sites? Well, yeah, it does. Kind of like paid search ads did in the beginning of time.

By all accounts, Facebook ads are fairly successful. They’re highly targetable (though not quite as targetable as keyword-search ads), but they also reach a different audience than search ads – a more…captive and engaged audience. This is true of most Social media destinations in the sense that social media sites are a destination, whereas search engines are more like weigh stations on the information super highway.

Yeah, I just said “weigh stations on the information super highway.” It felt good, too.

Introducing Paid Social
I am oddly excited about the implication and implementation of paid social marketing. It feels like the wild wild west all over again, the way paid search did in the beginning. More importantly, it gives small advertisers some space to play where there is not as much clutter (yet) and a lot more opportunity to generate some actual business. Facebook is just the beginning. YouTube (owned by Google) offers standard text advertising, but also video advertising which enables you to create keyword-triggered ads on YouTube.com which link to a video you’ve uploaded. This is a PPC ad product, so you need to have a media budget to try it out – but…how cool is that?

Finding new paid social outlets, launching campaigns and testing their effectiveness is my new hobby. As such, I’ve registered the domain www.paidsocial.com.