What, exactly, is an ad anyway?

For anyone who spends a not-insignificant amount of their time online, the explosion of Vero in the last few weeks is impossible to ignore. It may be FOMO at work, it may be that (finally!) having a network that promises to stick to chronological timeline speaks to our frustrations.

Whatever it is, the growth has been explosive. And the promises are huge. And I’m the first to admit – very attractive. The promises, though, have left me with one big question.

What exactly counts as an ad? And what are we expecting from an “ad free” network?

Who Vero is Betting On

Many of the people Vero is counting on to help catapult its service and hold users are “influencers” – people who make at least some part of their living on their personal brands. Many of the individuals I see enthusiasticlly embracing this new service are also small business owners. And, without a doubt, all of these groups are likely to be posting about their own products and services, about their latest blog post, or promoting the brands that have paid them to do so.

Vero’s terms of service also do not disallow brand or business accounts – in fact, it explicitly embraces them when it says in the Terms of Use:

If you open a Vero account on behalf of a company, organization, or other entity, then (a) “you” includes you and that entity, and (b) you represent and warrant that you are an authorized representative of the entity with the authority to bind the entity to this Agreement, and that you agree to this Agreement on the entity’s behalf.

Does this mean I think Vero will become a wasteland of self-promotion? Not necessarily. It does, however, bring up some very real questions about expectations. Why? Because the people Vero is betting on are the ones that live and die on content and discoverablity.

The Challenges Content and Discoverability

The standard narrative of social media over the last decade has been that a service is offered for free, and eventually ads have to be added because everyone got so used to getting it for free that they’d leave if they had to pay. That narrative also tells us that algorithms for what we want to see are implemented for those ads.

It is, interestingly, the exact opposite of the narrative created for content creators, from individual photographers to large news organizations. If you create enough great content and give enough of it away for free, then eventually people will want to pay to support that content.

There’s two problems here.

One – while we all say that we hate the algorithms, our actions say something different. In general, algorithms are useful because we tend to interact more after they’re implemented. We use Google because of its algorithm — Dogpile, as a search engine, only lasted so long. We stay on Facebook longer when we’re seeing posts from people we tend to interact with. That doesn’t mean we like the idea of a formula figuring out what we “should” see — but we also don’t like the post we put up getting ignored after 20 minutes because so much has drowned it out. While hardcore Twitter users loved this, it’s also what kept a lot of casual users — the users that make up the bulk of any successful network — turned off.

Two – the content creators narrative has slowly been gaining steam. Patreon and patron-supported content has been enjoying a slow and impactful growth. In May of 2017, Patreon reported over 1 million monthly active patrons that paid out more than $150 million. Yet large news organizations are using social networks — those of the algorithm debate — to promote their content to get it in front of enough eyeballs to get a small percentage to actually pay.

There’s a lot of good and a lot of bad that has come from both of these things. Algoritms are gamed daily, often to the detriment of content we say we want to see. Yet algorithms also help us sort through the mountain of content out there. Curation is the name of the game — it may be an email newsletter, or a social network, or a friend, but we often ask them to help by doing their best at guessing what we would enjoy.

It’s a problem the podcasting community has been lamenting for years. Discoverability in podcasts sucks, because there’s really no algorithm except for iTunes. There’s dozens of attempted networks that provide a “Pandora for Podcasts” style experience that will use an algorithm to help you discover something new. Curators and networks are a big part of the experience of listening, because that’s what helps you find something new. Advertising, through paid posts, cross-promotion, or sending out hundreds of queries to other creators to try and get a guest spot on their podcast, are a necessary part of the deal. In other words, advertising.

Defining advertising

When someone says “advertising” my expectation is billboard, a banner ad, or even an “interstital” pop-up. It could be a “promoted post” or a “partner post.” Ask Google what an advertisement is, and the response is:

describe or draw attention to (a product, service, or event) in a public medium in order to promote sales or attendance.

By that definition, a large part of what Vero is relying on. They’re hoping to pull individuals in that have large audiences, and that create a lot of content. Without content, their social network will become a wasteland (that is, assuming its servers can keep up with actually serving up that content). A lot of that content, from business owners, influencers, and everyday people, will be trying to describe or draw attention to products and services. While, for small business owners, it’s tempting to say that the links or posts you put on social media aren’t specifically ads, the reality is that it’s debatable. Business content or “sponsored content” or “native advertising” have been a debate in every form of media for hundreds of years. Because the fact is, if it’s about a business, it is probably an ad.

Vero’s Terms of Use, again, explicitly outline this:

Certain users may post promotional or marketing materials, which may include the ability for Users to purchase products or services from such certain users, (“User Promotional Materials”) via the Service; however, you will be exposed to such User Promotional Materials on the Service only if you opt in to do so, such as by following or friending such users on the Service.

So even if you choose to follow no small business owner, no aunt with a Scentsy business, and nobody who ever is paid for an “influencer” post, you’re “safe” from advertising, right?

How non-business posts could become ads anyway

In many ways, even the posts that are not specifically by someone trying to promote something are being turned in to ads. Vero has a built-in merchant services system, where the books, movies, music, and other items that you link to could have a Merchant Services link that allows you to directly click a “buy” button. Their statement on the matter:

In addition to individual subscriptions, we charge a transaction fee to merchants when they sell via our “Buy Now” feature that allows creators and brands to sell products directly from posts.

To me, that sounds like ads. The difference is that Vero promises you’ll only see these ads if you choose to follow the businesses, the influencers, or the products that they’re associated with. There is value there, but I don’t think it quite fulfills their promise of an “ad free” network.

So, what does this mean for Vero?

Vero is growing very quickly by promising a lot, with very little expectation management. Tell someone they’re getting an ad-free network, and they likely envision something very different than a network full of promoted content, business posts, and buy buttons.

I do think that there is a lot to be said for a network that (at least, for now) doesn’t manipulate things to show ads first and content second. I also think that the explosive growth of Vero means that there is a lot of content out there to be seen. A big challenge will come in the discoverability for individuals that put the time and effort in to creation. The other big challenge will come in finding out if users really can keep up with chronological content, or if overload (or annoyance with what our friends are sharing) kick in quickly.

Categories: Social Media