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September 24, 2009

Social Media and Just-In-Time Monetization

Being out at Advertising Week events this week proved to me that I’m not the only one obsessed with the fact that a business model needs to be developed for media companies and advertisers to make real, bottom line-lifting hay out of random, lightning-in-a-bottle media phenomenon. Things like Susan Boyle, Kanye West’s MTV diss and other events that are increasingly huge reach vehicles, but exponentially less predictable than big, annual media events like the Super Bowl. In fact, their power and their problem is that they aren’t predictable at all.

I first noticed that others were similarly obsessed during a panel on social media creative yesterday at OMMA Global (sponsored, as are this columnist’s crackpot theories, by MediaPost). Mat (it is only one ‘t) Zucker, executive creative director of OgilvyOne, said he had opined with a client, just the night before, that maybe the client should employ a social media SWAT team. Zucker said, “It wouldn’t be the traditional copy/art pair. It would be a writer and it would be the analytics guy … a new kind of creative team to be on the docks, ready to go.” (He then qualified this by saying it had to be a “very cool” analytics guy.)

So, what would this SWAT team do? If I interpreted Mat correctly, when something happened in the mediasphere, or social media-sphere, or within a brand’s own community, it would swing into an action. Maybe it would piggyback off of a news event that is somehow connected to the brand, or a sudden and unexpected injection of the brand into pop culture (though not a big enough brand to support the idea, think Limoncello after Danny DeVito downed some). In short, the job would be to leverage social media phenomena where it made good, natural sense for the brand. (Yes, this is sort of like crisis PR, but I’m not really talking about when things go horribly wrong.)

But, when you look around, it’s obvious that while these sudden bursts around certain topics are increasingly common, there is little capacity on the part of the advertising and media communities to deal with them. Maybe the problem is will – Zucker admitted that when he mentions this idea, people usually hate it.

Well, Mat, I’ve got the guy for you, and it’s Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired. He might like your idea. This morning, I was sitting through another panel, “The Future of Media Forum” also sponsored by MediaPost, an event that featured nine media luminaries, including Mark Cuban, Martha Stewart, Rob Norman and Judy McGrath, chief executive of MTV Networks. Anderson was the moderator. When Kanye West’s infamous diss of Taylor Swift on MTV’s Video Music Awards came about in conversation, Anderson kept hammering in on a key point with McGrath – was MTV able to monetize this event?

McGrath preferred to talk about the tremendous buzz the event received – which means, of course, that the actual answer to Anderson’s question is “No.”

“I just don’t see how this turned into more money for you,” Anderson said.

“Everyone was talking about MTV and that was really valuable,” McGrath countered. With apologies to McGrath, I hope in the future such an answer will be viewed as startlingly incomplete.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that buzz has no value, but I am going to tell you that it’s going to be increasingly stupid not to have people in place, be they creative SWAT teams, media SWAT teams or whatever, who are ready to turn on a dime and move almost as quickly as social media itself when the situation calls for it.

Now you could say that media companies and advertisers have bigger fish to fry, but I wonder how long that’s going to be true. We all know that network shares are eroding, and, thus, that huge reach is becoming less and less possible. That means these random events will become increasingly important as monetization and branding events; they virally achieve the reach that traditional media used to. But while the media and advertising community is equipped to deal with the ones they planned, the ones created and/or distributed by consumers leave everyone flat on their feet.

If you want a sign that the media and advertising communities haven’t even remotely dealt with this, let’s go back to Susan Boyle, who, in another venue, I dubbed “The Unmonetizable YouTube Phenomenon.” The most popular version of the clip (one that had embedding disabled no less), currently stands at 75.6 million views; overall, the total number of times that clip has been viewed is probably closer to 250 million.

When The New York Times reported on the problems the different entities were having in coming to a deal over monetization of the clip, it was a full month after the phenomenon began – that time lag isn’t exactly in keeping with the SWAT team model. And in stopping by YouTube this afternoon, I discovered that those who had a stake in monetizing the clip probably never did come to an agreement. Even the version of the clip on the official Britain’s Got Talent 09 channel doesn’t carry an ad.

So, maybe people don’t like Zucker’s idea. But it feels more like people are unequipped to deal with it. Sorry, guys. But that’s a copout.

Catharine P. Taylor has been covering digital media and advertising for almost 15 years. Contact her here.