I was wondering how aggressive and granular Facebook would allow contextual advertising to get. With the latest talk of Facebook’s “Sponsored Stories,” I think they make it clear that no content must go unadvertised.
Right now there’s a battle on Facebook between quality personal user experience and methodical ad revenue implementation. Every era and medium brings a new threshold of how much advertising consumers are willing to be slapped in the face with before flipping the bird and bailing on something they were previously enjoying.
The testing process that Facebook is obviously entrenched in smells like this:
  1. Figure out what the next Facebook real estate piece is to algorithmically attach advertising.
  2. Implement and crank up the invasiveness of advertisers half a notch or so.
  3. Watch the reaction.
  4. Publicly tout more privacy controls to stave off said reaction.
  5. Fine tune new ad method until advertisers are happy AND the acceptable amount of protesting happens from users (the acceptable amount increases with every new user sign up).
  6. Repeat.
How Facebook ‘Sponsored Stories’ works
Imagine standing next to your friend in a public place, like a park on a sunny day, having a conversation. You tell your friend, ‘hey man, I’d love a cold brew right now.’ All of a sudden, a used car salesman type guy wearing a Budweiser shirt, runs up to you from out of the bushes and blurts to both of you, “You guys thirsty for a cold brew? Well, buy this!”…then he runs off and does it to someone else down the street who also happened to be talking to a friend about grabbing a drink. Annoying right? Now imagine that happening to you all day from multiple brands, chiming in every time you mention any type of product or activity or thought during a conversation with your friends. Obnoxious to say the least. Sponsored Stories is the digital version of this scenario.
The goal with this ad program is to take advantage of the Facebook Activity entries in your news feed by repurposing your activity content into a served-up ad in the right column. Whether you are “Liking” your favorite band, or checking into a location using Facebook Places, if that activity is visible to your friends, it will automatically show up as an advertisement to your friends as well at some point.
With this new program, now it’s not just your profile info tab being poached to give advertisers context for their Facebook adverts, it’s also your activity that is now being regurgitated INTO an actual ad, with your personal name associated with it for all to see. It would be interesting to see if I update my status to say “That guy was a butt head.” Would my profile and photo of me show up as part of a Tucks Medicated Pads Sponsored Story ad? Did we just get digitally volunteered to appear as an official representative and brand evangelist without realizing it?
What about privacy?
Jim Squires of Facebook Product Marketing says “all privacy settings are honored”, meaning that the ads will only be visible to those who can see the original post that the ad was drawn from. What really sucks here is that there’s no way to opt-out or turn off Sponsored Stories, so unless all of your friends and you collectively have your privacy settings set up to hide your activities from each other (defeating the purpose of being on Facebook), get ready for TONS of ads.
Who is participating?
When Facebook launched Sponsored Stories, their initial inked partners to take advantage of this were Coke, Levi’s, Anheuser Busch and Playfish. Non-profits like Donors Choose, Girl Up!, Malaria No More, Amnesty International, Women for Women, Autism Speaks, (RED), Alzheimer’s Association and UNICEF also hopped on board.
I wonder if the big brands that signed up right way for this new program, worry about trusting the handling of their (sometimes historical) brand to millions of current and potential customers. I hope that the non-profits who signed on don’t inadvertantly drive people nuts with all the ads making their messaging and brand less effective.
My final question here is: Will any function or content real estate piece on Facebook be left sacred and NOT have an ad component bolted onto it at some point? It’s not that contextual advertising is bad. It’s business. I get it. Serving up the most relevant ads to a target audience is how it has always worked. I just wonder where the line should be drawn.