Social media’s ‘Portman Group’ moment

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In the UK, the internet industry has become a lobbyists football. From the Digital Economy Bill and the music-mogul entertained holiday  in Corfu that Lord Mandelson denied to Labour prospective parliamentary candidate Richard Mollet‘s leaked memo it is obvious that there is a political and commercial will to cripple the internet and turn Digital Britain into an analogue third-world country.

Shenzhen Art Museum government-sponsored exhibition

Where this likely to focus next is on social media and the uses of social media in marketing. A key problem with social media compared to other marketing platforms such as cinema and television advertising is the lack of effective, respected age barriers. With television advertising you have the 9pm watershed, adverts on rental films can rely on the age classification, as can cinema advertisers and even print adverts can rely on TGI data to demonstrate sufficient care that they weren’t targeting minors.

Contrast this with many social media platforms, notably Facebook, which has a 13 year-old age limit for participation, yet 37 per cent of 5-to-7 year-olds had visited Facebook and 25 per cent of children surveyed had some sort of social network profile according to an Ofcom survey referenced by Fast Company. If you look at applications in Facebook, their purile content could be considered to be aimed at the under-13s.

Ok, but why is this an issue?


Societies have generally had negative impressions of the latest forms of media and their effect on young people: rock n’ roll and rave music, video games, films, television and the internet have all had this in common.  There is no better example of this fear than the Daily Mail’s recent scare story about sexual predators on Facebook.

Conversely, the heat is also going out of other businesses as the time, attention and money moves to social networks:

All of these businesses can see revenue going elsewhere that they could consider to be legitimately theirs. The recent BBC retrenchment in online is partly due to the corporate revisiting non-core online franchises and as a way of heading off lobbying by media companies.  This has also has to be seen in the catastrophic records that media companies have had on their disasterous online ventures notably Friends Reunited, Bebo and MySpace.

I believe that social networking and social media is especially vulnerable to over-regulation in the UK. There is ample ammunition in the Ofcom report to encourage regulation and the forthcoming governing of social media by the ASA doesn’t fill me with confidence that the regulators understand the very real differences between social media and advertising content.

So what is it likely to mean?

  • The biggest impact is probably going to be on application developers who are likely to be further challenged on building viral applications whilst not overtly marketing to children. An application installation may require a ‘date of birth’ registration screen to demonstrate  that due care and attention has been paid to reach over 13s
  • Facebook advertisers are much more at the mercy of Facebook in terms of the accuracy of age groups, but may have to introduce an age request page as an interstitial after clickthrough
  • Moderation on Facebook on groups and comments on fan pages is likely to require heavier intervention to ensure that claims by commenters do not breach ASA guidelines, which is likely to be a buzzkill on community building as consumers will feel excessive constrained and ‘messaged’

But real question will this legislative kraken drive eyeballs and revenues back to the analogue media titans? I don’t think so, there are very few media vehicles that have staged as dramatic a media turnaround, even with a favourable regulatory environment.

For many international brands it maybe looking at pumping more into campaigns driven out of the US at US consumers and hoping for a positive audience bleed from the UK. This has an additional advantage that ASA regulations on competitive adverts can be flouted and campaigns can go negative. This would be a good bet for them. When I was at Yahoo! about half the UK users went to the  US site and I would estimate that this was similar with other US online properties. Short of going to a North Korean-style web experience there isn’t much that could be done about this.

A secondary impact of this would be a reduced demand for UK-based agencies and practitioners as technically these campaigns would be US work. Many US-based international corporations would be more than happy to retrench more marketing spend in their own country where their head office managers have more control over the projects to ensure consistency.

Given that, an estimated 48,000 people employed in PR at the moment and social media is the future you are talking about regulation would actively encourage the off-shoring thousands of well-paid white collar jobs, as well as a further dent in the UK as a creative hub for the marketing services sector. This doesn’t include the countless digital creatives in Soho and beyond or the advertising groups like WPP who have decided that the future is digital. Once this talent is gone, there will be no turning back.