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When Advertising Gets Intimate: Think Content Not Clutter

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Path is a serious contender in the category of social networks looking to fill a specific niche: close friends and family. In other words, Path is an online social network that more closely resembles your social network in real life. By capping the number of friends you can have, Path is designed to get its users to share more of their lives with their Path friends. Sounds great, right? So can your company buy ads on the Path platform? Well, not yet.

The delay in the addition of ads to Path might be because the Path team has yet to overcome an inherent contradiction: users who know their experiences and shared information might be used to serve ads to them or their friends might be less inclined to share that information, which jeopardizes the whole concept of Path in the first place. The only practical solution will be if Path finds a way to serve ads relevant to Path users' lifestyles, which would make those ads value-added instead of clutter.


But it's not just the limited number of friends or the current lack of ads that makes the Path experience different from other social networking platforms. For starters, Path was designed from the ground-up for mobile devices, a plan that anticipates the global shift to mobile away from desktop devices. Another novel aspect is that Path is designed to be experience-based instead of simply shouting about sports and politics or app games like Farmville. Instead, a Path user's news feed shows that user's friends checking in at places, traveling, eating meals, doing chores -- experiences, verbs, action.

By keeping the flow experience-base with your closest friends, Path users dodge all sorts of Facebook problems. For instance, who cares if your uncle is voting for the candidate you hate if all his Path feed shows is that he's washing his truck and taking his kids for ice cream?

And yet, Path has not designed itself into a corner. Even though Path limits users to 150 close contacts, those users can sync their Path accounts to Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare - so, in a seeming contradiction, it can also operate as an effective hub for all your social media while also remaining apart from it.

Home Base

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Another way to think about Path is that it isn't a social network as much as a "personal network," and that its competition isn't Facebook and Twitter but rather email and text messaging. Or, as Path CEO Dave Morin said in September, "If Facebook built the city and Twitter built the news network, we're trying to build the home."

That type of mobile-device-based social intimacy is great fodder for marketers trying to reach consumers at their most intimate level of sharing, but so far Path is holding advertisers back, with a few limited exceptions to test the waters.

For instance, Path recently launched a partnership with Nike+ Fuelband, an exercise app that posts users' running times and metrics to their Path accounts. This is a good way for a brand to sponsor a healthy lifestyle and connect with users and their closest friends, but how is it sitting with early Path adopters?

A TechCrunch review is concerned that the Nike app's automated updates doesn't fit Path's homely "tone," which still remains undefined as what it is, and more about what it is not: no link sharing (politics, sports, etc); no location-specific invites (a la FourSquare); and no automatic updates (aka the bane of Facebook). It's this last "no" that the Nike-Path partnership seems to run afoul of, and its auto updates could possibly spoil Path's intimate appeal.

Content Not Clutter

In short, what makes Path a good service is its simplicity and experience-based posts that have a consistent tone, a tone that appears to be manicured by its own users and which is developing organically over time.

So as Path moves towards another round of funding or an eventual IPO, it's good to keep in mind that eventually the Path network will start opening its doors to marketers and advertisers in order to make a profit on this network that they have spent so much time cultivating. When that moment comes, it's good to be prepared.

How can marketers reach Path users without compromising Path's intimate tone? Focus your message on experience and how your product brings family and friends together. Think about how to serve your ad so that it is seen as "content" rather than "clutter." Create a product-sponsored app that enriches users' experiences and connectivity and doesn't just shout. Now that's something we can definitely get behind.

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