Is Social Media Getting Less Social?

Pinterest is introducing sponsored pins, Facebook is chock-full of “suggested posts” and there are rumors that Instagram will soon feature ads in your photostream.  So what does this mean for social media? Is it less social? Less desirable?

You can read Pinterest’s official announcement here.

They address the obvious concerns regarding advertising on what is supposed to be a personal, social site: they promise to be tasteful, transparent and relevant. And, Pinterest’s founders promise to continually improve their “promoted pin” system (read: target advertising based on your recent activity) based on customer feedback.

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Now, I’m an avid Pinner. I love it – it’s like window shopping from the comfort of my couch (or, on a really guilty day, the comfort of my bed).  I understand that the company needs to make money to survive, and this is the logical next step for them as a business.  So far, I haven’t seen any of their ad testing in my feed, so I’m good with the way things are going. And I’ll continue to be ok with it as long as user-generated/promoted content outweighs & outshines the paid advertisers.

However, when user experience is sacrificed for the sake of a buck, they’re going to lose loyal customers. At what point does the increase in ad revenue make it worth the loss of user base? How long do you as a user/pinner stick around when you feel you’re being sold to?

Facebook has gotten a lot of negative feedback from users lately about the way they rank the information and updates in your newsfeed. It seems to me that the proportion of content from my “friends” vs advertisers has flipped lately. I’m starting to see Facebook as a wall of ads with little personal content sprinkled in to keep me mildly interested. And it’s making me like the site less and less.

So what’s the happy medium that turns computer nerds into billionaires and keeps their public happy with the product?  I propose we turn to magazines for the answer. I still subscribe to several magazines and my favorite day of the month is when Elle Décor shows up in my mailbox. I recognize that magazines are more than 50% advertising, and I’m ok with that. Heck, I even pay for these publications intended to sell to me. Why? Because the ads are beautiful, they’re relevant, and I expect them as part of the magazine experience – magazines have always been that way.

The hurdle that Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have to overcome is that their billions of users see the medium as a different beast.  Users expect content that is genuine, generated by their friends and family, and untainted by icky advertisers. I think the more advertisers learn about the capabilities of the medium, the less intrusive the ads will seem – and we’ll view them as art. Maybe this is a naïve and/or overly ambitious sentiment, but looking at the September issue of Vogue gives me hope. It’s almost all ads (665 pages of the thick 987 page volume are advertisements), it’s beautiful, I paid for it, and I read every single page – ads and all.

We often forget that these sites are free and they’re voluntary – no one is forcing you to check Facebook ten times a day, or to even have an account in the first place. So don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth – realize that social media is a business and that revenue is generated by ad sales, unless you want to fork over cash for a subscription to any of these sites. They want to keep you around, and they know they have to straddle that line between ad sales & user annoyance – they’ll stay on your side. They’re smart cookies.

What do you think about ads on Social Media? Give us your feedback in the comments.