When most organisations say they're on Facebook or Twitter, the first question is usually: "How many friends or followers do you have?" But for some organisations, their presence on social networks is less about being social and more about advertising. So does paid advertising on social networks work for charities, or is it simply a waste of space?
There has been a dramatic increase in online advertising over the past few years, to the detriment of traditional channels such as television, newspapers and radio. According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, total revenue from online adverts grew to £3.35bn in 2008, a 17 per cent increase on 2007 so it is clearly working.
Not surprisingly, social networking websites have been a big growth area for online advertising. They rely on adverts to exist, use targeted banner adverts and provide options for members to opt in to advertising on their profiles. Although many users consider such advertising invasive, they understand that it pays for their free access.
However, it isn't all good news for advertisers. Social networking sites such as MySpace are beginning to see their growth slowing, and many younger users are complaining about the deluge of adverts. The sheer volume of messages on the web also means it is easy for your advert to be missed.
That's why banner advertising needs to be carefully considered before you use it. Banner adverts have a greater impact when they are part of a wider campaign and have some great creative concepts to back them up.
This is fine when you are a large charity: campaigns by the British Heart Foundation, Leonard Cheshire Disability and Crimestoppers, for example, are often memorable because they run across different channels.
But for smaller charities, the risk is that banner advertising alone has no connection to the real world, can be easily missed and can run only for a short period of time (unless you have a bottomless supply of money). This is not the case if you set up a presence on a social network, where groups or feeds can be easily managed in the long term at little cost.
Targeting users by advertising on social networks means you need to identify your audience clearly. And if your audience is already on a particular social network, doesn't it make more sense to build a community with them that can grow over time, instead of shouting messages at them?