In a Web 2.0 world, advertising exists in an interactive environment characterized by user control, freedom, and dialogue. In this context, advertising means inviting the consumption of branded experience, ideas, and knowledge, engaging consumers, and inspiring interaction. It is no longer appropriate to serve up advertising as an interruption in the lives of consumers but, rather, to position brands as contributing members of vibrant, social communities.
Social brands contribute to communities by developing opportunities for interactivity, emphasizing the brand’s relevance to individual members and the community at large, monitoring branded community assets (like profiles in social networks and facilities in virtual worlds) for needed maintenance, responding to feedback, providing new content over time, and always finding ways to show the community that the brand values the relationship. No matter the range of social-media outlets used in a social campaign, whether social news and bookmarking sites, virtual worlds, social networks, or blogs and wikis, brands must remember the community exists for the sake of community-not for the sake of branding.
People do not join a community to interact with a brand. They join to be a part of something. They join to make friends, share stories, have fun, publish creative work, have a voice, and to take part in the relational activities that make life interesting and enjoyable. They join for social support and to feel the comfort of contact. They join to get to know others and to let others know them. For a brand to succeed in a social community, the brand must be part of the community.
How can brands benefit from the social context of online communities? For brands to benefit from this phenomenon, they must invite consumer participation and encourage consumers to engage. Brand democratization is the invitation to consumers to participate in creating and then experiencing a brand’s meaning, particularly within a social context. What happens when brands develop a reputation for embracing a social culture characterized by an appreciation for authenticity, transparency, participation, infectiousness, and advocacy? What happens when brands enter online social communities — social networks, virtual worlds, social news sites, community review sites, and communities of gamers — as contributing members, as sponsors, and as friends? Consumers embrace roles. They become content creators, storytellers, advocates, and communication vehicles. They seek out opportunities to immerse themselves in imaginary worlds, social fiction, and games, which are fortified, sponsored, and enhanced by brands. This is the promise of advertising in social media.