Print magazines being what they are, I pitched the idea of writing about the invitation-only, ad-free social network, Ello, at the beginning of October 2014. This was not long after both mainstream media and various online marketing communities achieved peak Ello hype. At the height of the noise, Ello was apparently generating 4,000 requests an hour and there was even a black market for invites on eBay.

Meanwhile, the interwebs were full of repetitive articles pontificating about whether Ello could be the one to finally knock Facebook from the No. 1 spot in the social media charts.

But when I sat down to write in November, the shine had faded. By the time you read this, Ello may already be in the back of a car, pleading with a moodily lit Rod Steiger: “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could have been the new Facebook, instead of another Diaspora … which is what I am. Let’s face it.”

The Ello manifesto

Ello’s hype was more about its anti-advertising, pro-privacy manifesto than the actual platform. “Virtually every other social network is run by advertisers,” it said. “You’re the product that’s being bought and sold.”

Ello’s message continued, “Collecting and selling your personal data, reading your posts to your friends, and mapping your social connections for profit is both creepy and unethical. Under the guise of offering a ‘free’ service, users pay a high price for intrusive advertising and lack of privacy.

“We also think ads are tacky; that they insult our intelligence, and that we’re better without them.”

Creepy. Unethical. Intrusive. Tacky.

Ouch.

The manifesto was the trash talk before the fight, turning on a show for the audience. As such, it was a ball of PR wrapped around a spurious argument. It not only picked a fight with advertisers and marketers, it also threw down the glove to Facebook and any other network that uses targeted advertising as a business model.

Trouble is, I think Ello overstated the problem and therefore overreached in trying to land a punch. And this may be why it landed on the mat before the first-round bell was rung.

Is Ello anti-marketing?

You’d have more luck keeping flies off a dead cat than marketers off a new social media platform. So I certainly wasn’t surprised to find most of the early adopters in my network were other marketers, community managers, and social media practitioners.

Yes, my network is a skewed sample. But Ello’s manifesto certainly didn’t deter the usual suspects from looking under the hood and debating the merits and limitations of the platform (usually on other platforms). However, does Ello’s manifesto mean that these marketers are not welcome?

Not even close.

Paul Budnitz is the founder of Ello. He owns a bike shop. Budnitz Bicycles has an Ello profile showcasing its latest products. The posts use large and stylish images coupled with almost surreal copy before wrapping up with an “order-today”-style call to action.

So what’s going on here?

Ello might be anti-advertising, but it’s clearly not anti-marketing – particularly if the content is stylish and interesting enough to fit in with the celebration of creativity and design that Ello aspires to be. Otherwise Budnitz and the manifesto would be obnoxiously hypocritical.

I believe Budnitz and Ello have made a distinction between the value of branded content designed for interested users to discover and traditional advertising that seeks to interrupt the user. The intention appears to be for marketing to be pulled toward the user via relevance and genuine interest instead of pushed at them via an advertising framework targeted by user data.Ello might be anti-advertising, but it’s clearly not anti-marketing – particularly if the content is stylish and interesting enough to fit in with the celebration of creativity and design that Ello aspires to be. Otherwise Budnitz and the manifesto would be obnoxiously hypocritical.

I believe Budnitz and Ello have made a distinction between the value of branded content designed for interested users to discover and traditional advertising that seeks to interrupt the user. The intention appears to be for marketing to be pulled toward the user via relevance and genuine interest instead of pushed at them via an advertising framework targeted by user data.

So, content marketing then.

This is merely my interpretation. It’s far too early to see how other businesses may use Ello, and most are probably too nervous to try after the manifesto appeared to smack down the industry. Maybe by the time you read this we’ll have more examples to consider.

Maybe not.

Ethics aren’t enough

While sign-ups have been high, many users are just not sticking around. To be subjective for a moment, there’s virtually no one in my entire network still posting to Ello, including those who habitually post every thought they have to every available network. Most people appear to have given up after a couple of obligatory “thanks for the invite” and “just checking this new thing out” updates.

There are only so many social networks an individual can integrate into his or her daily routine. We might experiment with them all, but most of us will only use one to three networks on a regular basis. So for people to change from their preferred networks, the alternative has to be better. And while some minority groups may value the freedoms and privacy afforded by Ello, many other users may not see the poor user-experience and stripped-back platform as an adequate replacement. At least not yet. The reality is that Ello isn’t ready for a punt at the title. It’s too green, too underdeveloped; all bluster with little actual weight.

I’m not rushing to Ello

Unsurprisingly, I’m guessing that Ello will not be the downfall of Facebook. Like Diaspora before it, I see Ello as an idealistic statement more than a fully formed platform. Take the manifesto away, and all that’s left is a terrible user experience and some questionable font choices.

It’s still in open beta and there’s a long list of features in development, so I can only hope the team behind Ello will improve the user experience and design considerably. But right now Ello is the electric car of the social media family – striving for a better world, but still far too impractical for the average driver.

Ello may be far from a Facebook killer, but it is a warning to social media marketers. The shift toward social media advertising in recent years has changed the game, and this is tempting many marketers to view social media platforms as more traditional media-buying channels.

Remember when Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube didn’t have advertising programs? Social was about conversations and relationships, gathering feedback, and joining the community. The platforms were listening posts, and places to share good content, ask questions, respond to concerns, and – you know – network. It’s extremely important that we don’t lose sight of those goals by chasing algorithms and crunching data. Social still has to have something worthwhile to offer in return for audience attention.

We need to produce social media content and develop strategies that rely more on discovery than advertising for distribution. Yes, sometimes advertising is needed to get the ball rolling. However, we should always aim for our content to reach more of the right people by appearing naturally as shares within their social media streams. We need to complement, not interrupt, the habits of our customers. And, above all, we need to be confident that they want us there.

Ello is a reminder that the best content marketing shouldn’t rely too heavily on advertising to drive the numbers. Our content should always pack a big enough punch to draw a crowd.

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.

Published with permission.

Image courtesy of CCO magazine

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Jonathan Crossfield

If it involves putting words in a row with the occasional punctuation, then Jonathan has most likely given it a bash; from copy writing to screenwriting, blogging to journalism. He has won awards for his articles on digital marketing and his over-opinionated blog, Atomik Soapbox. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Kimota.

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