Meet Ello, the anti-advertising social network and gated community for the cool kids. Ello has already exploded in popularity by offering an ad-free network and by allowing members to use made-up names instead of their real names (unlike Facebook, which requires the use of your real name to have a personal account). Based on my own experience with Ello thus far, the site has already attracted a community of artists and designers, which is fitting because Ello was founded by artists and designers. (As has been reported widely, Ello also gained a surge of invitation requests and phenomenal buzz in recent days when members of the LGBT community joined Ello to protest Facebook’s identity policies). But being ad-free is not the same as being brand-free. Ello is already attracting brands such as Sonos and Adweek and may become a haven for content marketers as Tumblr already is. Moreoever, Ello will need relationships with brands to survive.
Essentially, Ello functions as a more private version of Tumblr. The site’s clean layout and uploading functionality make it especially easy to post visual content such as GIFs. The site is buggy, but it’s also in beta, and its coolness factor covers up a multitude of sins while users stand in line to be invited by Ello members or Ello itself (you can apply for an invite by visiting the site unless a friend invites you). But Ello is making headlines because of its attitude toward advertising, not its user-friendliness. As Ello states in its manifesto,
Your social network is owned by advertisers.
Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.
We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.
We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life
You are not a product.
You get the picture: “we’re not Facebook.” But if you join Ello looking to stay away from the gaze of corporate brands, you will be sorely disappointed. In fact, Ello provides another platform for companies (and individuals) to extend audience relationships via content marketing, which is not the same as paid advertising.
Content marketing — or building your brand by providing useful information and entertainment — has been a brand-building mainstay for decades, with John Deere producing a customer magazine, The Furrow, in 1895. According to Mass Relevance, 95 percent of CMOs believe content marketing is important to their business, and content marketing is a strong area of investment for customer acquisition, according to a report I wrote for Gigaom earlier in June 2014.
In other words, smart companies long ago complemented paid advertising by acting as publishers of branded content. And you can be sure smart brands are sizing up Ello right now, if for any other reason than to claim their own Ello identities in order to protect themselves from squatters. Lifestyle brands with strong design sensibilities may find homes on Ello. For instance, Ello is a potential platform for a company like Shinola, which creates and sells gorgeous watches and other products from its popular Detroit headquarters. (Ello co-founder Paul Budnitz has a brand page for his bike shop on Ello, by the way.) If Ello’s popularity with the LGBT community holds up, the site could also be a popular destination for LGBT-friendly brands. I also see Ello becoming something like another Etsty for artists. And forward-thinking celebrities could land here. (Lady Gaga could use Ello to drive traffic to her own Little Monsters community).
A note to parents: Ello will most certainly become a home for the adult entertainment industry based on its porn-friendly attitude (Ello will says it will enable NSFW flagging in order to help users screen NSFW content, as Tumblr does.)
I am careful to use “could” and “possibly” when I speculate about Ello’s future because Ello has a very long way to go in order to become a sustainable community. Joining a network is one thing; staying on one and being engaged is another, as Path demonstrates. Ello plans to support itself by charging users to add specific features to their accounts, but as Steven Tweedie of Business Insider points out, Ello’s ad-free model has already failed with Diaspera and App.net.
Ello enjoys a $435,000 seed investment from FreshTracks Capital. But if Ello is to have a future, I believe the network will need to find a way to create revenue-generating partnerships with brands and relax its “no-ad” stance (for instance, by permitting native advertising). If content marketers act like the publishers of engaging and useful information they are supposed to be, no one on Ello will mind.