(insert name here)

Last November, Reddit user alekskras cashed in on his luck. Inside of a locker at his local gym, alekskras found a six pack of Peroni lager. “Surprise! You have found the winning locker.”, read an attached letter. Commentary ranged from surprise to jealousy at the serendipity, with one user commenting, “Why does this feel like Peroni is trying viral marketing?”

As it turned out, it was, or at least appeared to be. A simple Google search of the name Aleks Kras returned a LinkedIn profile detailing Mr. Kras’ involvement with digital marketing, enough evidence to summon the Reddit outrage brigade, making the highest visible comment one of derogatory outing and shaming.

Reddit.com, founded in 2005, pictures itself as the front page of the Internet, and in January alone had near to 113 million unique visitors from 196 countries viewing close to 5.5 billion pages. If even 1 percent of the pages viewed were a veiled attempt at marketing, 55 million pages could be considered disingenuous at best.

According to website ranking company Alexa (owned by Amazon), Reddit is the 69th most visited website on the Internet, while the top three you could probably name: Google, Facebook and YouTube, all of which have implemented subtle marketing techniques that have become a part of how we interact with the platform — making differentiating advertising from genuine posts a tricky prospect.

Ventura resident Mike (who wishes to remain anonymous) enjoys a hamburger at Barrelhouse 101 on a warm January afternoon. Mike has several part-time jobs. As a musician, Mike can be seen at various downtown locations with guitar in hand. At night, you would be more prone to catch him at his keyboard.

“I stay up late at night, watch charts and wait for numbers to come out,” said Mike. “It’s a lot of number crunching.”


Photo courtesy CSUCI.
CSU Channel Islands pulls features from the early days
of Facebook as part of their student outreach.

Mike makes small purchases of foreign currency and then waits for changes in the dollar against them on the website www.FOREX.com. When the time is right, he trades. It can be boring work — but it’s not all that Mike has to do. While he waits, he also scours Twitter, tweeting on one of his 50 accounts, hoping that someone will click on a link to one of his blogs.

“They’re all niche-based accounts. One is a Lakers account, one is about Dodgers, maybe about cats or dogs. I just tweet stuff about a topic and every once in a while I’ll put an ad or a link in.”

Mike gets a small amount of cash ranging anywhere from one cent to $5 for every click that generates a purchase. In any given month, Mike can make between $100 and $600 from his time spent on Twitter alone.

Mike takes advantage of both Google and Amazon’s affiliate program, called AdSense with Google, which allows users to create custom links that will credit him for the business. For Mike, at times he can be so busy that he will hire help to Tweet for him.

When questioned as to whether his tactics may be construed as disingenuous, Mike disagreed.

“It happens every day,” said Mike. “We all have to eat. We all have to survive. You’re not scamming anybody. You’re getting a couple of cents for them getting whatever they need.”

In fact, ad revenue makes up most of Facebook’s income. In 2013, Facebook brought in $7.83 billion in ad revenue alone, an increase of more than 55 percent since 2012. Twitter took in a little more than $583 million last year, but is expected to nearly double that in 2014, not taking into account the individuals like Mike who advertise for themselves.

Facebook claims 1.2 billion users worldwide. In the U.S., according to Pew Research, 57 percent of American adults and 73 percent of people aged 12-17 use Facebook and, of that, 64 percent use the social networking site on a daily basis, an increase from 59 percent in 2010.

With these numbers comes more information about an individual than has ever been recorded in the history of humanity. Without the need for independent research, companies looking to market specifically to your interests need only look at your activities online.

Robert Blatt is the CEO of Santa Monica-based MomentFeed. Three years ago, founder Rob Reed discovered an underutilized niche.

“He thought about how hard it would be for brands to manage place pages and how powerful their marketing could be if they began to speak through them,” said Blatt. “Rob saw that mobile was going to, in effect, create a new marketing asset.”

The idea became known as a company’s “digital identity of a physical location” or, in other words, a Facebook business page, a Twitter account or an Instagram feed tailored specifically to the neighborhood it resides in.

“You do an Instagram photo and you place tag it, you do a post on the Facebook local page, you do a tweet within the geographic area — we can use each one of those signals that identify that the content really is about you,” he said.

For instance, if a student attending Ventura College uploads a photo of a drink on Twitter and mentions the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (which MomentFeed calls one of its largest customers) location on Main Street, MomentFeed will know — and collect that photo or message for potential use.

Since 2012, MomentFeed has been utilized by more than 50 major businesses nationwide, focusing on “geotagging,” i.e., pulling information from a user’s location-based posts. In 2013, MomentFeed opened an office in Ventura with several employees who reside locally.

“What if in your news feed you see a message that says, ‘Hi, I’m Umberto,’ and you look at the picture and it’s actually the picture of the guy who pours your coffee,” said Joergen Aaboe, director of marketing for MomentFeed. “As a brand, you don’t have to do that a hundred different times. What you can do in MomentFeed is say, ‘Hi, this is insert manager name, insert manager photo, at the insert neighborhood Coffee Bean.’ ”


Photo by: Scott Alan Mount
A morning meeting with MomentFeed’s staff in Ventura.

All of these messages can be controlled from one location, making it possible to synchronize the content across multiple platforms, much in the same way that Facebook uses your personal information to create a tailored marketing profile based on your likes or post history.

Take a look at the advertisements on the right side of your Facebook profile. Oftentimes, these will be adverts based on your recent search history (on Google, Bing or Yahoo) and constructed from your interests.

Of course, if the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf’s “Umberto” were to tweet a message directly at you, it wouldn’t really be Umberto.

“What Facebook is doing is taking something that we’ve done throughout history, social interaction, and it’s trying to monetize it,” said Jose Marichal, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at California Lutheran University. “They can’t appear to be artificial or be intruding because if they do they’re going to turn people off.”

Marichal says that as social media has evolved, networks and the businesses that use them have had to become savvier in how they market to their users, utilizing the information that we willfully provide to, in turn, make enlightened choices on what to market and to whom.

“You as an individual can’t be sold directly, but you as a larger profile can be sold,” said Marichal. “We share through emotion, affective communication, our highs and our lows. More and more of our interactions are about disclosure and connection and emotive feeling.”

Blatt says that developing a human connection by collecting information about a specific area is important for a brand too big to cater to the individual, but stresses that MomentFeed does not track individuals’ movements. MomentFeed waits until users tag the locations themselves before taking action.

“Consumers are comfortable about interacting with the humans they buy the product from,” Blatt said. “What they’re uncomfortable with is a brand tracking everything they’re doing and delivering information as to where they are,” as in, walking past a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and receiving an ad on your smartphone. “I don’t think consumers are ready for that.”

Blatt says that he is aware of the concerns of individuals when it comes to their personal information, and though the company collects information from profiles on Facbeook, Twitter and Instagram, none of it is taken that has been made private. Only public information is made available to the MomentFeed application.


Changing faces

Facebook’s 10th anniversary couldn’t come at a more delicate time for the company. As CEO Mark Zuckerberg celebrates, the social media site that began its life as a meeting place for college students has morphed into a multimedia landing page for everyone.

In October 2013, Zuckerberg assured investors that Facebook doesn’t have a “young people problem,” but admitted that teens were using the site less. In 2012, 42 percent of teens said that Facebook was their most important social media site, but in the fall of 2013, just 23 percent said the same, according to Piper Jaffray’s semiannual teen market research, which found Twitter had overtaken Facebook in popularity with the teenage crowd.

According to digital consultancy iStrategy Labs, more than 6 million teens have left the site since 2011 — hardly a dent in Facebook’s 1.2 billion users worldwide, but a sign of the times as Facebook experiences growth with older demographics, specifically in the 35-54-year-old range with an added 16.4 million users in the U.S.

Where are the teens going? To Tumblr, SnapChat and Vine, notable social mediums with far fewer sharing, liking and posting options than the 2014 Facebook. In other words, more Facebook of 10 years past. Recently, SnapChat’s 23-year-old CEO turned down a $3 billion buyout from Facebook, this coming after Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion in 2012.

At California State University, Channel Islands, Vice President for Technology and Communication and Chief Information Officer Michael Berman is well aware of the downward trend in young users on Facebook, but says he doesn’t believe the site is becoming irrelevant.

“It’s a tool that students are familiar with and they’re using it to interact with other students, to see where everyone from high school is going to college,” said Berman. “It’s almost like the ticker tape from the old days.”

For Berman, and CSUCI multimedia coordinator Tom Emens, finding new ways to interact with the site may be the key to social media longevity.

A case in point is CampusQuad, a social media application for students. CSUCI will only allow students with a university email to sign up, to communicate in much the same way the original Facebook worked.

“It puts a lot more emphasis back into the student communication,” said Emens. The application also allows users to create events, tag locations for meetings or discuss course work. “We wouldn’t open it up to anybody outside of CI, because then it would become like every other social outlet.”

On Twitter, CSUCI (@CSU_CI) tweets to potential students, answers questions and asks questions of its own. (A recent tweet asks its 2,000 followers, “Why did you choose CI?” The question is actually the basis for a social media contest launched at the university, offering $1,500 scholarships to one current student and one prospective (admitted) student who can best answer the question of why they chose CI in a 15-second video.). Emens and his core of interns interact with potential and current students across multiple platforms.

“I’ll tell my students, I don’t care how many pictures you take of the campus on Instagram, flood it,” said Emens.

CSUCI is the first of the CSU schools to put an emphasis on social media. The tech department has also invested quite a bit of time on UVersity, an application offered to new students.

“What this does is give the incoming student an invitation to join a closed group with all the other applicants that have applied and been admitted,” said Emens. “Then it puts them into communities of like-minded students.”

Emens says that despite businesses capitalizing on Facebook’s need to sell advertisements, he believes that it’s not going anywhere, and instead UVersity and CampusQuad will play a role alongside traditional networks.

“Users are getting smarter. They know what they want,” he said. “If they don’t really like something, it’s going to blow up with whoever is trying to shove it down their throats.”


Social services

Since 2005, Facebook has altered its terms of service on multiple occasions. When Facebook was known as Thefacebook, users were promised that “no personal information” submitted would be shared with anyone outside of their network. In 2010, a user’s network was expanded to include businesses, friends of friends and even the public at large, and in 2014 the ability to opt out of sharing information became near to impossible.

Facebook’s mobile application recently underwent an upgrade with a stipulation allowing the application to scan text messages. In December, two California users of the site began a class action lawsuit claiming that Facebook reads private messages in order to “increase its ability to profit from data about Facebook users.”

Jose Marichal says that users of any social network shouldn’t expect that their idea of privacy will match that of the social network they’re on.

“The underlying agreement that you’re making with a Facebook or Twitter is that for your use of this free service, you will be marketed to,” said Marichal. “I don’t think that people have an ethical or moral right to be free from advertising on these applications.”

According to Marichal, users need to become more aware of the privileges they’re giving when they click on the “agree” button.

“It’s sort of naive for people to think they have an expectation of privacy when they’re engaging in social media,” said Marichal. “That their participation is somehow private is an expectation, but there’s no legal justification for it.”

“We’re not really using Facebook as an advertising medium, we’re using it as an engagement medium,” says CSUCI’s Berman. “If you hashtag(#) something, you can get a pretty good viewership from just using the right one. By populating those networks with hashtags, we’re doing ourselves a favor by getting our name out there.”

Blatt of MomentFeed says that eventually consumers will be used to the way social media interacts with them, whether through marketing or otherwise, referencing the theory of a technological singularity in which artificial intelligence may surpass human intelligence.

“Every new technology that comes out, the adoption rate goes down dramatically,” said Blatt. “It took companies a long time to get a website. It took them a heck of a lot less time to get a Facebook page. It’s taking them even less time to recognize that this digital identity of a physical location is something that they really need to manage.”

Back in Ventura, Mike is having a pear cider with his hamburger. Later that night, he would return home, browse Twitter and shoot off a message to a follower regarding the recent Lakers game, and perhaps throw a link in as well. The user on the other end would, more than likely, think that Mike is just being friendly. He won’t tell the user that he’s making money off of the tweet, but it doesn’t bother him that the user isn’t aware.

“It’s like a restaurant, they’re giving you something you want and they’re making money off of it,” said Mike. “It’s just helping people out.”