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This morning I attended an interesting session on advertising on social networks at SES New York. Much of the subject matter here has implicit ties to local, and some explicit. The conversation around social networking in this session was, correspondingly, mostly about national branding advertising in social networking, with some interesting local dimensions.

The perennial challenges of tying marketing to social networking came up, such as the lack of control involved in viral distribution. This applies to companies or agencies that find it difficult to cede control of what might be a finely tuned marketing message. Some (Wal-Mart, Sony, etc.) have tried to engineer the best of both worlds by foolishly pushing out corporate marketing-laden content, thinly disguised as organic blog chatter. This proved very transparent and got these marketers a net loss in bad PR. “What were they thinking?” has become the common hindsight sentiment, and this can be a valuable lesson to both national and local advertisers.

But there can be ways to combine a marketing message with social networking, particularly in local, as we’ve explored in the past. The key is to give your audience the respect it deserves in disclosing your intent, unlike the cases above.

Chad Stoller, executive director of emerging platforms at digital marketing agency Organic, sat on the panel and had some interesting thoughts on reaching qualified audiences in social networking. His thoughts apply to many forms of online advertising, including local. Verticalization was his main message, as reaching specific verticals in a social networking context can allow marketers to create a richer message that is better received than the general (albeit massive) audiences on MySpace, Facebook, et al. In this sense, “local” can be considered a vertical in itself.

“MySpace has proven to be great for launching movies. But an engaged consumer can be reached in a vertical network that meets specific interest,” said Stoller, who cited MeetUp as an example for its ability to reach SMBs with the ability to network around needed services.

“I know I can get 60,000 small businesses that need new services. They will be more likely to want new banking services or be looking for vendors,” said Stoller. “It’s the ability to create a richer message, richer engagement in a smaller community, they’re prequalified. You always want a prequalified audience.”

Beating the Herd
Among the many topics discussed in this session, one audience member opened up an interesting tangent on seeking out the “coolest” places to advertise. The key message is that it’s all about timing. The first advertisers on MySpace got more bang for their buck than the following generations that flocked there.

Marc Schiller, CEO of interactive ad firm ElectricArtists, similarly cited an example of his client Aloft (a division of W Hotels), which was among the first brands to launch an interactive campaign on Second Life. It didn’t get there as fast as American Apparel, which dresses the game’s avatars and gains some nice exposure in the process, but the company will still get more value out of its decision to position itself in the game than the many companies that participate in the Second Life land grab going forward. These companies will be getting the Second Life sloppy seconds (to coin a new phrase, if someone else hasn’t already). As always, the key will be to spot trends before they happen, which is, of course, easier said than done.

“Everyone is talking about Twitter,” said Schiller, taking a stab at predicting new hot places to advertise. “There will be a brand that gets great attention by figuring out how to do something cool with Twitter that fits who they are. When, how and who will that be is the question. ”

But Second Life will continue to be interesting to watch for its local possibilities, as we’ve pointed out in the past. There will be many kinks to work out and lots of negative press about how overblown its value and experience have become. It nonetheless has some interesting potential and its value can now be appreciated, at least, as an eye opener for what can be possible from a marketing perspective with highly immersive social networking.

“Monetization is very early in Second Life,” said Schiller. “Can they make users go into a virtual hotel to make a reservation at a real one? It’s too early to tell, but now it’s about strategically looking at what can be done and what kinds of experiences are possible.”

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