Social Media: You are the New Advertising Network

Heute schwarzer KanalAfter following the whole Kmart paid-blogging firestorm, a tweet from Guy Kawasaki last night stopped me in my tracks.

“Twitter spam is an oxymoron. Following is opting in.”

I had to stop and try to digest that, especially as I was one of the people who called the Kmart posts on twitter spam. The short story is that Kmart and Sears gave a bunch of bloggers $500 gift cards to shop at their stores and write about it. They provided an extra $500 gift card to be given away in a contest, which readers could enter by writing a comment about what they’d buy, and promoting the contest by tweeting it. What ensued was a flood of Kmart promotional tweets, which I, among others, referred to as spam.

Well, here was Guy Kawasaki saying that it wasn’t spam. And when I thought about it, I realized he was right. I choose to follow Chris Brogan’s updates. Chris decided to promote the contest. I can choose to either continue following him or not, but technically, his promotional tweet isn’t spam.

But that got me thinking about what this really means about networks like twitter, monetizing content, and the nature of social media.

In one incisive post, Kawasaki stripped the Utopian veil off social media and its commercial uses. If promotional posts from people in my network aren’t spam, because I choose to follow them or not, then guess what? Social media will just become the latest media vehicle to drive advertising. Instead of television networks, radio stations, or print publications, all of which cultivate followers to whom they can deliver ads, the new networks are you and me. Our readers, the followers and friends we cultivate, are just target audiences for which we are an efficient advertising conduit. That’s what Kawasaki’s simple and undeniable statement envisions.

Think about it. All of this talk about companies needing to listen to consumers, about consumers owning the brand, about building networks of trust, is really just a happy facade for consumers. Because according to Kawasaki,  your opinion about what a company is saying via social media is best expressed through the binary choice of choosing to follow or not follow. If you don’t like it, change the channel. Which is the same old paradigm it’s always been: the company crafts its message, blasts it through whatever medium is available, and measures success by the numbers of people that follow, or don’t follow. Listening and engaging in dialog is optional, and in fact, probably inefficient.

And Kawasaki certainly lives this. He is open about his strategy of aggressively building a large network of followers and broadcasting to them prolifically. While I may have viewed Kmart’s paying of bloggers to essentially bribe their readers via contests to promote Kmart to their own networks as spam, Kawasaki frames it as a simple advertising transaction. So much for the quaint notion among social media evangelists that the days of broadcast media were over. As Kawasaki demonstrates, we’ve just moved the network. And the trust you and I cultivate to build a network of friends is a far more elegant machine of transmission than television ever was. To you and me, it may be a communication platform of trust, but for business, it’s nothing more than the new channel. How else could networks like Twitter and Facebook remain free?

Meet the new boss.

Photo credit: Flicker (unknown)

14 thoughts on “Social Media: You are the New Advertising Network

  1. Bret Clement

    Hi Chris,

    Good thoughtful blog. I agree with you and with Guy. The thought of actively managing your opt-in Twitter feed every day puts pressure on you to keep just the feeds that provide value. If you like deals, maybe’s Twitter feed is useful because it contains special deals. But when a feed gets too corporate or doesn’t provide value – it’s time to opt-out.

  2. Anthony

    Actually, I think that @michaelreuter initiated the thought 11 days ago, long before Guy said it. (Twitter search for oxymoron opt-in spam, etc) Just putting credit where it’s due.

  3. Chris Kenton Post author

    Hi Bret. Thanks for commenting.

    I was being a bit rhetorical in the post, but I’m trying to figure out what the implications are if the line of what is acceptable in monetizing social media is determined by nothing more than the free will to follow or not follow others. Does that absolve the advertiser, as well as the blogger, of anything more than the simple of efficiency of “does it work?” Does it erode any ethical concept of what a trusted network means, by saying “trust” means essentially getting people to follow you?

    I’m sure some people will see this as navel gazing, but to me there’s the hint of a crossroads here.

  4. Chris Kenton

    Hey, Anthony. Thanks for sending me back to the search engine. Looks like the origination of the “Twitter spam is an oxymoron” goes back to Guy’s post on the 2nd, How to Use Twitter as a Twool”, in which he espouses the idea that you should gain as many followers as possible, and use the network to drive business objectives. “Tell the complainers where to go.” I suggest reading the post, as the mercenary approach to leveraging your Twitter network is described.

  5. Jonathan Trenn

    I don’t fully agree. There needs to be a balance. And I had nothing against Chris Brogan’s situation.

    When If ollow someone on Twitter, I expect interaction. Sometimes that can be promotional. And that’s fine. But it is a two-way channel. If brands view it just as a broadcast medium, they could damage the culture and then suffer the consequences.

    Let’s say instead there were many of these contests going on all at once. People getting hundreds of retweets from their hundreds of followers. It, again, would ruin the experience.

    So I’d say that if you seek to gain a many followers as possible, and you’re not “famous” like Guy Kawasaki, then you’re going to have to build good will before you start broadcasting messages.

  6. Chris Kenton

    Hi Jonathan–

    Thanks for the note of reason. I agree with you–we’re not falling off a cliff here. But then, we’re only seeing the early stages of what most of the pundits in their 2009 predictions are forseeing will be a drive towards models that monetize blogging content. I don’t have a problem with that. I come from journalism, and despite protestations to the deep trench between advertising and editorial, it was never lost on me who was at the top of the masthead: the publisher.

    But what I’m looking for here is some indication of how we’re managing the balance between the interests of the reader–how we build a following of trust–and the interests of the advertiser. If the only line is whether or not people will follow you and stay with you, as Kawasaki suggests, I think we’re walking out on a ledge.

    I’ll freely admit I haven’t thought through all the ramifications of this to have a strong counter argument, but I sense in my gut that we’re face to face with an issue we should all be paying attention to very carefully. And frankly, what Kawasaki is saying opened up a very dark door that I had naively wandered past. I’m not saying he’s wrong. I just think it’s mercenary.

    Thanks for moving the conversation forward.

  7. Patrick Byers

    Good points here.

    With all Twitter relationships there must be trust. Trust happens when there is balance before broadcast.

    Guy (and everyone on Twitter) must build up enough trust over time–enough social capital–to share promotional messaging.

    I share every blog post from The Responsible Marketing Blog with my readers, sometimes more than once since people read Twitter at different times. I assume the people following me are looking for information on the things I’ve used to describe myself “Responsible Marketing Evangelist on the Responsible Marketing Blog, CEO of Outsource Marketing, speaker. Strategy, social good, naming, social media, yada yada.”

    Now hold that thought.

    In Seth Godin’s classic “Permission Marketing,” he claims that if a message isn’t anticipated, personal and relevant — it’s spam.

    So given the above, here’s another take on the “Twitter spam is an oxymoron” comment:

    When I go off topic, rambling about my lunch, my kids or something not related to my description of myself, am I spamming my followers?

    Maybe that’s a question worth asking too.

  8. Nicole Hamilton

    @PatrickByers great question. Is your assumption of why others follow you based on why/how you personally seek out followers on Twitter? One of the great things I love about these communities is that the lines between home and work intertwine. Your business and the way you do business has everything to do with you as a person (that may even mean sharing where you favorite place to eat lunch is). On the same token, I think we have come to expect that that type of integration will happen at one point or another, especially here in social media. So I wouldn’t consider it spamming.
    I would like to think that brands/people that use Twitter as a way to broadcast messages, promotions or whatever, will ultimately fade out and “die.” It goes back to understanding your audience and why they like and value these communities in the first place. How long do we think @comcast would last if they used twitter only to broadcast new promos instead of answering questions and solving their customer’s problems? Bottom line is, whatever medium you use, you are fooling yourself if you think your customers can’t see through all the slush you are throwing their way 🙂

  9. Chris Kenton Post author


    Do you think trust is a requirement for Twitter when there’s such a social imperative to have a large following? When so many pundits talk about the importance of influence, and the measure of influence being the size of your following, I think many of us are driven to grow our networks even in the absence of trust. Size matters more. Maybe that’s just an artifact of the early stage we’re in, but I don’t think Kawasaki sees it that way. He’s open about building a large network of “nobodies”, because that can be leveraged into exposure and influence. Again, I think it’s pretty mercenary, and it’s not my philosophy, but I’m not sure he’s wrong. It’s just an application of a DM approach–throw a wide net and drive your conversion percentage, trust and relationships come later.

    I really appreciate your comments about Permission Marketing. I think the notion that the only standard that must be met on Twitter is whether or not people are following you will lead to a lot of behavior that sours people on the medium. Like email spam. After a while, it just becomes a pain to deal with.

    I look forward to continuing the dialog.

  10. Chris Kenton Post author


    I totally agree about the merging of personal and professional lives–and I’ve talked to a lot of people trying to come to terms with that. We’ve become so used to siloing our lives, to the extent that we often don’t know much about the people we do business with every day. On the other hand, I think a lot of people also find comfort in that–in having parts of their lives that are separate and private. On the whole, I think integration is better–it puts a human face on relationships that are often sterile.

    I like your optimism that mercenary promoters will go away. I’m just exploring why they may not, and trying to understand how their approach to social media might even be packaged as “good marketing”. I mean, the line between snake oil salesman and fabulously successful corporate marketer hasn’t always been clear, which is why so few consumers trust marketers. I think it’s important to explore that line the more social media accelerates.

  11. Jonathan Trenn

    In many ways there on only slight nuances in what we’re saying here, which is a good sign. I for one will say without embarrassment, have sent promotional messages on behalf of my clients. But they end up being far and few between that I can’t imagine that I’ve offended anyone. Again, to me that’s the key.

    Now people like Guy Kawasaki (and Seth Godin and Steve Rubel and Robert Scoble, etc.) will have greater leeway on this. Most of the people that we follow on Twitter, FriendFeed, and Facebook, we do so out of curiosity. Someone peaked on interest. With those like Guy, Seth, and Steve, they get followed in part because of the gravitas they bring with them. It’s almost an “honor” to have them follow you. In fact I’ve seen people tweet to their followers that “Robert Scoble commented on my blog”.

    I recently began following a guy named Barry Judge on Twitter. Barry is the CMO of BestBuy. He, perhaps mistakenly, uses @BestBuyCMO. He’s trying to engage people as a marketing guy but people see him as a complaint center. The perception of him is vastly different I think because of him. He becomes a corporate figure and less “human”, even though I believe he wants to be, how do I say this, like the rest of us.

    The likely result? He’s viewed a mouthpiece for the corporation, and I bet it’s more difficult to promote stuff that way. If he was @Barry Judge who happens to be the CMO of BestBuy, then I think it would seemingly be more “cool” to exchange ideas and sometimes get promotional messages. I’m sure he’s doing fine on Twitter, but I would imagine he’d be more successful if he took that other route.

  12. Chris Kenton


    Interesting note about Barry. I expect you’re right–he’d be more of a “regular guy” if he removed the “Best Buy CMO” from his handle–but then, he’d have to work a lot harder to build a network. I wonder how he views the tradeoff. I spoke with the VP of Marketing for another Fortune 500, who said he was tired of his social media focus being constantly on the negative complaints–that it was driving their whole sm brand presence. He’s actively working on ways to turn that around–maybe following Dell, doing idea storms or something like that.

    I’m still stuck a bit, though, on what defines the bar between shilling and acceptable paid promotion in blogging/twitter–beyond the pure efficiency metric of follow/not follow. I agree that clearly, what Kawasaki and Godin can get away with is not indicative of what anyone else will be able to pull off. But I’m concerned about what Kmart was able to do–using Tweets as a contest entry mechanism, which is brilliantly viral, but turns ordinary people into advertising channels to their network. We’re going to see that concept go big real soon, before there’s an outcry.

  13. patricia

    To be honest, what this discussion got me thinking about was how so many of these web tools/platforms become precious to their early adopters — and then, when they’re co-opted by big brands and become mainstream, that original user base feels betrayed. It reminds me of when a group of fans bemoans their favorite band “selling out” when a song is used in an ad or how someone will boast about liking Band X “before they got really big,” as if that’s a badge of honor and the newcomers who like Band X now obviously have less discriminating taste.

    The fact is, with all this social media stuff — and most anything on the web — it’s all out there to be used, modified, corrupted, ruined and, sometimes, improved. Some people hate all change (see comments to ANY site redesign), and some people gracefully go with the flow. It’s naive to think that Twitter could remain the pure, marketing-free domain of regular folks without a commercial agenda. Either the tool/platform evolves into something that becomes more useful to more people or it’s a victim of its own success.

    Meanwhile, what are the haters (accusing Kmart/Brogan of twitter spam) suggesting as a remedy or alternative? I hear lots of criticism but no solutions, which is my #1 beef with so much of the social media/web 2.0 navel-gazing (but not Chris Kenton, of course, who blogs about helpful strategies all the time; see latest post).

  14. Chris Kenton

    🙂 You never fail to make me smile, Patricia. I’m going to hire you as my permanent “Get back down to earth” muse.

    You’re right. The tools are out there. They’re free. People will use them however they want regardless of any hand-wringing by purists and pundits. All the same, as an advisor to businesses, I’m always trying to figure out how new tools can improve marketing effectiveness, and where the boundaries are that either enhance or detract from a company’s brand equity.

    But it ‘s always refreshing to be reminded of how sane people view things. 🙂

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