Your Facebook Activity is Now an Ad

Facebook is launching a new ad format called “Sponsored Stories,” which allows participating advertisers to promote your Facebook activity by turning it into homepage ads seen only by your friends. This activity can include liking a Facebook page, checking in via Facebook Places or sharing content to the News Feed from a Facebook application.

These shares, which would have appeared in your friends’ News Feeds anyway, are now given special promotion by way of a Facebook ad that appears on the right-hand side of the homepage. The ad will display your friend’s name, photo, a picture and link to the relevant Facebook Page or application, plus any likes and comments.

Similarities to Twitter’s Promoted Tweets

Does this sort of user-generated advertising sound familiar? It should – Twitter is doing nearly the same thing.?

Twitter’s Promoted Tweets service was introduced last spring, offering advertisers similar options for generating ads from the social networking site’s content. It was an new concept for advertising – taking content that would have appeared within the service’s search results (the de facto way to see what people are saying about a given subject on Twitter) – and highlighting that content through a top-of-the-page ad showcasing the promoted tweet itself.

In November, Twitter announced it would begin rolling out the Promoted Tweets into users’ timelines, too, through its partner, HootSuite, a provider of a popular Twitter client application.

But in Twitter’s case, Promoted Tweets didn’t come from just anyone’s content – they could only be selected from the advertiser’s account or those affiliated with it. A promoted tweet wouldn’t be stolen content from an unsuspecting user.

Of course, that’s not Facebook’s way.

How Facebook’s Sponsored Stories Work

With Facebook’s Sponsored Stories, your activity is now up for grabs, available to the advertiser associated with the brand, business or app you interacted with.

Just checked in to a restaurant? That’s an ad. Just liked a brand? That’s an ad. Just shared a news story from the Web? That’s an ad.

At launch, Facebook’s Sponsored Stories partners are Coke, Levi’s, Anheuser Busch and Playfish, plus nonprofits like Donors Choose, Girl Up!, Malaria No More, Amnesty International, Women for Women, Autism Speaks, (RED), Alzheimer’s Association and UNICEF.

Oh, and there’s no way to opt-out, says Facebook. “While there is no way to opt out of seeing all or being featured in any Sponsored Stories, you can remove specific stories by clicking the ‘X’ displayed in the upper right side of a story and choosing the appropriate option when prompted.”

The stories also respect your Facebook privacy settings, so only people who can read your News Feed stories can see the Sponsored Stories.

Advertising Transparency?

The funny thing about these “personalized recommendations,” as Facebook calls them, is that an ad could come from a restaurant check-in that led to the worst meal of your life or it could show up after you “liked” a retailer only because they were running an ad that said “like us on Facebook for 10% off.

Your friends would see the promoted activity – activity that may or may not tell the whole story of your interaction with that business. Unless you comment on the item to explain, all your friends would see is the activity itself.

On the flip side, that does raise an interesting question – what if you did comment on the activity? What if, say, after a check-in at a restaurant, you commented about the terrible food or service? Because Sponsored Stories display the likes and comments, your friends would now be able to see your complaint, too. But do advertisers have any way of knowing that? And can they pull a Sponsored Story if so? That’s a key point, and it’s unclear what level of control advertisers have here. It’s important though, because real personalized recommendations work both ways – they deliver the good news and the bad. Without both sides represented, this is just a new way to spam your friends.

Future Implications

While on the one hand, the fact that my activity is now being turned into ads for my friends makes me feel a little icky inside, I don’t totally hate this idea. I would like to see what new restaurants my friends are trying, what online articles they found worth sharing, where they shop, etc. That’s the least offensive kind of advertising I can imagine, and arguably, the most effective, too, if done right.

What’s even more interesting about this integration, however, are the future implications it brings to mind. Thanks to the Facebook/Microsoft partnership, these types of personalized recommendations could soon find their way into Microsoft’s Bing search engine, for example. That could finally hit the sweet spot for personalized search.

One of the complaints about the limitations of the Facebook Like is that your friends aren’t going to go around liking boring things like household appliances or other sorts of items undeserving of a Facebook share. But by including check-ins and website shares in this advertising initiative, it’s easy to imagine a future where a Bing search for a refrigerator delivers a results page that tells you: “John just checked in to Sears on Monday” and commented “great appliance sale!”

That could be interesting.

Maybe a little creepy, too. But if there’s one thing Facebook doesn’t shy away from is toeing the creepy line, to see how much invasiveness its users will tolerate before crying out “privacy violation!”

The funniest thing about this new form of advertising is that it’s actually far more intrusive than Instant Personalization, which simply shared select profile info with partner websites on an opt-out basis. Instant Personalization received federal regulator attention, while this move will likely fly under the radar, despite the fact that it co-opts your content for ads, with no opt-out option at all.

Creepy. Genius. Nice move, Facebook.

Source, Image Credits: Inside Facebook, Facebook.com

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