Social media? Booming. Social media advertising? Not so much.

Social networks are growing like kudzu in August. You knew that already; now the Nielsen Online folks have made it official. According to its Global Faces and Networked Places report [PDF], Netizens now spend more time on social networks than they do inside their email inboxes. (Though, given that most social nets have their own internal email systems, that's surely an oversimplication.)


The time people waste spend on social networks is growing three times faster than the overall Internet. Facebook time alone increased by a whopping 566 percent. (I knew I'd been frittering away too many hours on there lately; apparently I'm not the only one.) And though the Nielsen report features fresh young 20-somethings on its cover, Facebook is booming most among the boomers. The biggest growth is among the beer belly and cellulite crowd, aged 35 to 49. Meanwhile, nearly twice as many 50 to 64 year olds signed up for Facebook than those under age 18.

In other words, Facebook is no longer cool, rad, bitchin, gnarly, or whatever the kids are calling things they like these days. (Somewhere, my 12-year-old is groaning.) It's for old farts like you and me. The youth have moved on to hipper social networks, and it will be a frosty day in Hell before they tell us which ones they are.

But the real story is social network advertising, or the lack thereof. Despite solid revenues, advertising isn't clicking with social media users, or vice versa. To wit:

Whilst a few billion dollars of ad revenue can't be wrong, the prevailing wisdom is that the current level of advertising activity on social networks isn't consummate with the size - and highly engaged levels - of the audience. The social networks and advertising industry haven't quite yet found that magic formula to make this happen.

Why? Check out this amazing graphic, which is buried on page five of the report. According to Nielsen's "BuzzMetrics," the word most closely associated by Internet users with advertising is "false." It's a bit hard to see, but if you squint you'll find the word "false" right at the bullseye. The words least associated with ads? Deal, price, and quality.

False = advertising, per Neilsen

People don't trust ads. They don't like ads. They don't really want to see ads, but they'll put up with them if they have to. (Which is one of my big objections to ZillionTV; giving you a choice of what ads you'd like to see is like giving you the choice of what dogfood you'd like to eat. Would you prefer the chocolate cinnamon dogfood or the raspberry swirl? In the end, it's still dogfood.)

Nielsen says social media outlets like Facebook and MySpace have the potential to change the nature of advertising by making it more "social." In other words, it's not Nabisco or Procter & Gamble or Toyota that's trying to sell me something I don't want, it's my 3,247 close personal friends on Facebook, some of whom I actually know.

In theory, this could a beautiful thing for advertisers. People who love a product will tell two friends, and they'll tell two friends, and so on, and so on. Then I think about what products I use, and how many of them I would unreservedly recommend to my online posse. I can count them on both hands and still have fingers left over to type.

[For the record, they are Tivo, Netflix, the Sonos Music System, Google (the search engine, not the apps), my 2009 Honda Fit, and Red Bull. You may now go out and consume as many of these things as you can without exploding.]

As for the other 11,976,542 products vying for my attention? Feh. You can have them.

So instead of trying to manipulate us into buying their products, advertisers will spend their online ad dollars trying to manipulate us into recommending them. This is an improvement? I'm not so sure.

The Nielsen folks say it's time for advertisers to engage with consumers and be more "authentic, candid, and humble." Maybe they will. This will be the year we find out whether old advertising dogs really can learn new tricks - or if they'll just end up serving up the same old dogfood in a different can.

When not face down in his Alpo, Dan Tynan tends his blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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