The following is also my March Forbes.com column.
Today it seems that many marketers are literally tripping over themselves to invade social networks in force. There's almost a land grab underway as businesses rush to set up hubs on the "big three": Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. You can definitely sense that we've passed a tipping point.
All at once, businesses large and small are increasingly recognizing that they need to go where the people are. And with 100 million Facebook users in the US who spend an average seven hours on the site each month (Nielsen), it's surely a no-brainer. When your local pizzeria is promoting their Facebook page at the register, as mine does, then you know that marketing has changed. The same applies to Twitter and YouTube.
However, with this land grab, a controversial shift is underway. The trusty dot-com URL, at least its role in marketing, maybe dying.
Some companies are de-emphasizing spaces they own, like their web site, in all of their ads. Instead, they're pushing people towards spaces they rent where people are spending time - e.g. their Twitter, YouTube Facebook hubs.
Case in point: UniBall. During the Winter Olympic games I was surprised to see the pen manufacturer use its TV ads to point people to its Facebook page. There UniBall is giving away 10,000 pens. Nowhere in its ads does Uniball promote its own web site. It's all about Facebook. Clever.
Much the same, I noticed the New York Knicks basketball team in its outdoor ads had only three calls for action - an SMS code, Twitter and Facebook. Again no URL. A dot-com was nowhere to be found.
Finally, during a recent Mashable event in New York, Columbia Journalism professor Sree Sreenivasan pointed out that this is becoming the norm in the motion picture business. Perhaps this is a function of living in a world where people hardly use bookmarks any more and just Google.
If this all sounds familiar, it should. It's all reminiscent of the mid-1990s when URLs started popping up in TV ads and billboards. Or worse, when AOL keywords first surfaced in the early 1990s. These were curious at first, then later, welcome. Now I guess a URL is just boring.
However, this time it's different.
For starters, when marketers promote their social network hubs over their URLs they risk that more savvy consumers will see right through it. People could perceive it as a flat attempt to look cool and hip. Consumers already skeptical of advertising and this just adds to it.
Second, the use of "heavy artillery" - e.g. advertising - to round up more fans and followers is equally controversial. This would be fine if it lead to true person-to-person engagement. However, many brands are just using their Twitter and Facebook presences to spew out updates, without any thought to how consumers will benefit by essentially opting in. UniBall is providing value but others don't go to such lengths.
Finally, much the same, very few businesses treat social networks as personal, conversational spaces. Hardly any feature real employees. And a scant few aim to advance shared interests.
So while it's welcome that marketers are beginning to promote the hubs they rent in all of the relevant communities, few are really optimizing them into true relationship builders. Most are devoid of humans - e.g. employees - and many look like faceless companies that are trying to check off boxes or slap shiny logos on their site.
In some ways, it makes sense to me that marketers are emphasizing their spaces where people are spending time and where they can be easily found. However, at the same time, with so few understanding what it takes - people - to really build credible relationships, I wonder how long this trend might last and if a backlash is the works.
If I were a dot-com URL, I wouldn't write my will just yet.