Ello, a relatively new social media network and the latest to promise a sanctified, commercial-free space to be brag and/or moan about your life, has only been around for four months. While the explicit promise of Ello is that it will be free of advertising, plenty of brands have already stampeded onto the site.
Including (ahem), The Atlantic.
As of twelve days ago, The Atlantic has been sharing stories on the new platform. The only problem with all this is that we're not sure who is running our Ello account. While our Facebook and Twitter accounts are safely in the hands of editors, The Atlantic's Ello is currently being run by parties unknown.
Not that we're upset about it! Whoever is running the account is doing a bang-up job. Great art is being used, the copy in the Ello posts is clean and engaging, and there's a good mix of stories showing the range of what we do here every day.
While we attempt to sort out who exactly is doing free work for us (there are rumors, as yet unconfirmed, that it's Kevin in accounting—we'll report more when we know more), it's a good reminder of a couple of unalterable laws about social media networks.
Firstly, brands—whether they be media organizations like us or more commerce-focused like Sonos—will always stampede towards the Next New Network. Most companies (including ours) now pay people to focus entirely on social media, whether in-house or through a variety of third-party firms. The dirty secret of social media work, though, is that it often doesn't take up a lot of time, the metrics (pageviews, sales conversions, newsletter sign-ups, et cetera) are squishy, and many social media managers are under the gun to prove to execs that they are worth whatever the organization is paying them. One of the easiest ways to prove your worth is getting your organization on a shiny new platform. Attract or buy a few thousand followers and you have a lovely graph to show off to the bosses. (If you go from zero followers to one, you've literally increased your brand reach by infinity percent. Great job!)
Secondly, this early gold rush rarely pays off. Many brands and publishers are early adopters of networks like Tumblr, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, App.net and now Ello. In a few cases, like Facebook, Twitter, or (for some companies) Pinterest, these networks can become vital for business. In most other cases, the social network never develops enough users to have any ROI for brands, or it's too difficult for organization to convert social media traffic into sales or pageviews. After claiming their initial stake, the brand will then usually wander off to pan for nuggets elsewhere. There are a bevy of abandoned brand Instagram and Tumblr accounts, including, of course, our own.
Finally, the promise of a truly commercial-free social network is probably never going to happen. (To be fair, this isn't what Ello is promising; they've simply published a "manifesto" saying they will never show you advertising or promoted posts.) There's two reasons for this.
One, barring extremely vigilant moderation, every social network will see users twisting it towards commercial ends. (MetaFilter and, to a lesser degree, Reddit have been successful at keeping this type of activity to a minimum, but even they offer up advertising and have users clandestinely working behind the scenes to help brands sell.)
Two, social networks eventually have to pay for themselves. So far, no major social networking site has found a way to make people pay for the privilege of talking to their friends. Which, inevitably, leaves advertising. Ello may want to be pure as the driven snow, but engineers and servers don't come cheap, and social networks can't simply putter along with a few thousand (or even a few hundred thousand) users and be useful. If Ello is successful and grows, the site's initial promise—that it will not be a place to sell but a "a place to connect, create and celebrate life"—will give way to economic reality. After that, it's either endless rounds of VC funding, a quiet shuttering, or advertising and promoted posts.
Now, if you'll excuse us, we need to order a nice fruit basket for our mystery Ello poster. We appreciate all the hard work, and we'd love to know who you are!