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Online advertising appears to be going through a pretty chaotic phase right now. Costs for ad-buys are increasing at the same time that retailers and other businesses are struggling with shortages of various goods. Meanwhile, the backlash against social media’s ill effects is still challenging people’s perceptions of the value of advertising on some of those platforms.

We’ve talked about that latter phenomena in the past, and we’ve emphasized that some advertisers and website owners most likely need to adapt by considering alternative platforms for their online advertising. These include but are by no means limited to up-and-coming or off-the-beaten-track social media sites and apps.

The commercial value of TikTok is sure to continue increasing as its existing, youthful user base becomes more viable and its demographic reach expands. At the same time, there are plenty of opportunities for site owners to get creative with online advertising, and it becomes especially important to exploit them when data analysis doesn’t point to the popularity of specific social media platforms among one’s target audience.

Bucking the Algorithm

One of the main drivers of audience aversion to social media is the growing sense that people are being manipulated by its algorithms. And they are. Experts in online advertising have understood for a long time that the effectiveness of their campaigns relied very much upon data matching certain types of ads with certain types of users, through automatic processes.

For all that time, algorithmic manipulation was just accepted as a natural part of online advertising and the broader internet landscape. People either weren’t aware of the negative impact it could have, or they simply chose to ignore it. Some people still do, and some always will. But in the wake of whistleblower complaints about Facebook and a rising tide of public discourse about Twitter’s outsized influence, the proportion of those people is shrinking.

What’s more, that trend is widely expected to continue. Time spent on Facebook declined by about 3.3 percent between 2020 and 2021, according to the market research company eMarketer. A significant portion of that decline can certainly be attributed to lifestyle changes as people emerged from lockdowns and relative isolation once Covid-19 vaccines became widely available. But researchers expect a further decline of about 1.8 percent between now and next year, and another 0.7 percent between 2022 and 2023.

Obviously, this raises questions about the long-term value of continuing to pay Facebook for online advertising. It will raise additional questions among those who consider buying such advertising for the first time in the years to come. Some of them will surely find they still get a return on their investment. Facebook retains a greater reach than some large countries, after all. But it largely depends on the details of one’s target audience and the focus of forthcoming waves of departures from the platform.

If any given company thinks it can still rely on its existing social media strategies regarding online advertising, then we would only caution them to have alternative investments in mind for the time when the online landscape changes in ways they didn’t anticipate.

Moving Past Social Media

So what might those alternatives be? Well, as alluded to above, they are growing more numerous all the time. Of course, many of them just other websites and apps and systems that are every bit as reliant on algorithms to pair up users with the paid content they’re most likely to respond to. That is to say, they’re subject to the same pitfalls that are currently haunting social media marketing. If any of them become popular enough to provide a guaranteed return on investment, users could just end up turning on them, as well.

On the other hand, there have always been elements of online advertising that involve a little bit more of a human touch. These include influencer marketing, which entails establishing direct partnerships with persons who have a strong presence on their given platform and are willing to share paid, branded messages with their followers.

Influencer marketing has the distinct advantage of eliminating the barrier between the content one’s target audience consumes and the online advertising that is intended for that audience. Historically, this sort of marketing tends to be viewed as more trustworthy by consumers, even if it’s quite clear that there was an exchange of cash for its inclusion in a social media post or other piece of content.

However, that integration only does so much. The advertiser still has to take it on faith that the content will reach the correct users; and for that they are still very much relying on the social media algorithm.

This is not so much the case when online advertising takes a step beyond influencer marketing and establishes more forthright partnerships between a company and an online personality. Presently, the field of online advertising includes more and more examples of companies simply sponsoring content and counting upon the quality of that content to bolster the brand. Sometimes this entails copy submitted to the creator by the brand or its digital marketing company, but we think some of the best examples involve paying partners not just for ad space but also for their creative voice.

When the voice of an online advertisement matches the voice of the surrounding content – be it a YouTube video or podcast – it is likely to rate as especially trustworthy among consumers. In that case, it is as clear as can be that no one is being manipulated. The content creator is plainly offering the brand message in their own terms, and the consumers is hearing that message not because an algorithm matched them with it based on an arcane set of data but because the advertiser shares their taste in entertainment.

We have no illusions that most users will think of it in those terms. Many will continue to be annoyed by commercial intrusions as they have always been. But among those who respond positively, direct partnerships make it more likely that the connection between consumers and marketer will lay the foundation for continuous engagement, brand loyalty, and ambassador marketing.

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