I’m willing to bet you know at least a little bit about advertising on social media. When you’re browsing your Facebook News Feed or scrolling through your Twitter timeline, chances are you’re seeing ads constantly, from Suggested Posts and Twitter Cards to Snapchat Geofilters and Instagram video ads. You’ve scrolled past them, you’ve clicked on them, and you’ve loved them – but do you know where they came from?
The history of social media advertising actually goes back more than a decade now. From LinkedIn and Facebook pioneering some of the first successful social media revenue streams back in the early 2000’s to Snapchat launching their own foray into advertisements as recently as 2015, here’s an in-depth look at the way our favorite social media platforms evolved to become potent marketing tools.
If you remember the wild days of the early 2000’s, you also probably remember the predominance of two now-(mostly)-defunct websites: Friendster and Myspace. Back then, the site that would become their number one challenger was still just a small, invite-only website private at first to just Harvard students, and then to anyone with a college email address: The Facebook.
You might think Facebook’s advertising experiments started later, when the site was open to the public, but monetization came to Facebook extremely early.
Banner ads, advertising services for and to the Harvard students that were then its only audience, appeared on the site in its thefacebook.com days all the way back in 2004.
Advertising on the platform evolved slowly, but continuously. Once the site became open to anyone with a college email address, sometime around 2006, right-side ads came into vogue. Mark Zuckerberg’s insistence on an unintrusive advertising experience led to the development of and preference for these sidebar ads over more traditional banner ads, and that guiding ethos has influenced Facebook Advertising ever since. These days, Facebook could be considered the king of native advertising, with advertisements blended seamlessly into the otherwise organic browsing experience.
Here’s a fun trivia fact you may or may not know: LinkedIn is actually one of the dinosaurs of the social media world, having gotten its start all the way back in 2003. Of course, it looked different back then, and it functioned differently, too. The original intent of LinkedIn was to be an online resume. While today the platform actually has the most utility to recruiters looking to hire, back in the day it was dedicated more to the idea of simply preserving existing professional connections.
When the site was first launched, its own founder expressed a desire not to worry about funding or income and simply focus on reaching LinkedIn’s first 1M users. The site’s first revenue stream did not come from advertising – nor did its second. LinkedIn first began by monetizing job postings with LinkedIn Jobs, and followed that up with a premium subscription service. Ads were their third and final revenue stream, and to this day do not make up the bulk of the network’s profits. Ads started showing up in force some time in 2006, three years after the service’s launch. Today, LinkedIn offers two main ad types: Sponsored Updates and Create An Ad, which involves more traditional text and display ad units.
Twitter is one of those companies that spent quite a long time sustained only by the power of their own continued hype. Founded back in 2006, it took the site four years to finally take the plunge into monetization, introducing their first advertising format in 2010. Up until that time, it had survived on numerous rounds of venture capital fundraising, as well as tentative forays into partnering with tech giants like Google and Microsoft to provide them with Tweet data.
2010 saw the birth of the Promoted Tweet, which back then turned up pinned atop organic results when users performed a search. Over time, of course, that model has changed quite a bit. For example, Promoted Tweets still exist, but rather than showing up when users search, they now integrate seamlessly with other, organic Tweets that users will be reading. Essentially, Twitter has also jumped aboard the native advertisement train, blending sponsored content like Twitter Cards directly into Twitter users’ feeds as they scroll through.
Unique in that it started life as a mobile app, rather than beginning on desktops and later moving into a predominantly mobile format, Instagram popped into being in 2006 and quickly took the world by storm. Another darling of the venture capital circuit, Instagram sustained itself on sheer grassroots gumption and an exponentially growing user base – and valuation – until a full six years later, in 2013.
Instagram was one of the most prominent and possibly most successful early pioneers of native advertising.
According to their own blog post that introduced advertising to the service, Instagram only wanted to show users a “small number of beautiful, high-quality photos and videos,” making the experience a deliberately curated one designed to blend into the normal, organic user experience. That has since, of course, changed. Facebook had bought them in 2012 – one year prior to their introduction of advertising – and Facebook and Instagram have followed similar advertising trajectories since.
Now anyone can buy advertising on Instagram. It’s no longer the carefully managed experience it once was, though the service continues to at least suggest certain aesthetic guidelines to follow.
Back in 2009, Pinterest was born out of a plan to capitalize on the void in and demand for ever more visual content. While other platforms had a focus on text, or text and video, Pinterest, not unlike Instagram, centered its focus on images. What really separated the two services was their approach to the curation of content: Instagram was more like an experience, while Pinterest was a collection. This difference worked in the platform’s favor, currying millions of followers and encouraging explosive growth throughout 2011 and 2012.
However, with growth came a need to sustain that growth. Four years after the site’s founding, in 2013 Pinterest instituted a system called Promoted Pins.
Promoted Pins allowed businesses to promote a specific Pin, typically of a product that the user could then click on and be brought to the advertiser’s site to buy.
Unlike most other platforms, Pinterest hasn’t done much to expand its advertising. Promoted Pins are still the only ad type on the site. What’s changed over the years is the power of their targeting tools, which have received numerous overhauls, and the division of Promoted Pins into more than one type. The fundamental Promoted Pin experience remains the same, but different types allow for Promoted Pins to appear in different places on Pinterest.
You might think that, given the parent company of Google+, Google’s fourth (!) foray into the social networking world might have been monetized from the get-go. You might then be surprised to discover that actually wasn’t the case. Google+ was, in its early days, a service that did not include any advertising directly on or tied to the platform. Going elsewhere on Google could still mean that users were served ads, but they wouldn’t be directly related to the Google+ experience nor show up on the plus.google.com domain.
That all changed in 2013, two years after the service’s launch. With a brand-friendly system in mind, Google+ rolled out +Post ads. +Post ads didn’t quite follow the trend towards native advertising that other platforms were moving towards; in fact, Google+ ran the other direction. The idea was to take organic content that brands posted on their Google+ account, like photos and even Google Hangouts, and then turn that into paid content that would appear as a display ad across the entire Internet through Google’s ad network. Essentially, it was like promoting a post, only except of promoting just on Google+, your newly promoted content would be anywhere Google ads could go.
As far as I can tell, that’s the system they’re still using today, without many changes. Given the ubiquity and power of the Google advertising network, changes may not be needed.
Snapchat is the latest and greatest of social media darlings. Born two years after the end of the naughts in 2012, it is the latest arrival of the major players on the social scene, and yet its explosive popularity has made it one of the fiercest juggernauts to contend with. Founded on the idea of disappearing photos, Snapchat did not initially seem like a platform terribly conducive to any kind of advertising.
As the platform and its user base developed, however, change swept into Snapchat. Geofilters were introduced in 2014, and while no monetization was attached, it was only a matter of time. By 2015, the service had grown to encompass video, the Stories feature, and finally, Discover, which granted brands access to the app’s then roughly 100 million unique users. Discover curated content from across the app, but also let users browse through and see disappearing content from brands. 2015 also finally saw the promise of geofilters realized, when Snapchat started to allow brands to purchase branded geofilters for users to slap onto their Snaps.
It took three years for Snapchat to monetize, and when it did, it did so in a hugely successful way.
Ad types on the platform have exploded, both in variety and in popularity. After geofilters came lenses, which were fully interactive instead of just image overlays. Snapchat also introduced Snap Ads for a somewhat more traditional advertising venue, not dissimilar from video offerings on other platforms – just retaining that distinctive Snapchat flair.