When over 50% of online content is consumer generated and the fastest growing properties are social networks, how sites and marketers capitalize on this new media opportunity is a very hot issue. Facebook and MySpace are the most important players to watch as the practice evolves.
Why is this different than any other type of advertising? In any media relationship there is a pact between reader and publisher. Traditionally these relationships have been top down. Readers tolerated intrusive advertisements in exchange for free or subsidized content. In social experiences that pact has changed because the users are the content creators. The site does not exist without their enthusiastic participation. As such, the user community becomes a sort of editorial board on one hand, club members on the other. They are the glue that holds these enterprises together. Community owners will have to be very thoughtful about how advertiser partnerships deliver value to the community rather that exploit eyeballs… or stand the risk of abandonment.
Thoughtful social networking sites together with smart advertisers will start to manage the relationship as affinity marketers, carefully selecting and packaging valuable offers that match preferences of the groups they serve. As such, advertising becomes a benefit of participation, reinforcing the value of membership. Tools that enable commerce between members of the community and small local businesses (classifieds, personals, etc…) will also be key.
There is, as always, good commentary on Bubblegeneration on this issue. See this post in particular. My favorite line from the commentary which sums up the issue well: user does not equal audience.