Coming Soon to Your Facebook Page: Ambiguous Advertising

January 26, 2012

For those of you who thought the mother of all changes to Facebook would be Timeline, think again.

Not many expected the social media giant to sleep for long, but Mark Zuckerberg and the invisible decision-makers at Facebook are at it again with another change in how you interact with homepage content — and how advertisers engage with you.

Last week, Facebook began the rollout of Sponsored Story ads within users’ homepage news feeds. For the first time, Facebook is directly interspersing paid content with information that users have chosen to see.

Facebook timeline ad
But these ads aren’t clearly labeled as Sponsored content on your page. They also aren’t being placed in the column on the right side of your page, where Facebook has housed paid content in the past. No, they’re running right in the middle of your personal news feed – the same place you get updates from friends and groups you’ve “liked” on Facebook.

Instead of calling these items ads or sponsored content, however, Facebook is labeling them as “Featured.” This new nomenclature could mislead users into thinking the ads are important stories about friends, or news from pages they’ve subscribed to. Many Facebook users won’t associate the word “Featured” with paid content, especially when a “Featured” story is located in a place that’s previously been reserved for user-generated content.

Josh Constine at TechCrunch reported that a Facebook advertising spokesperson sent him the following information about the Sponsored Story ads:

“We’ll be labeling these stories as ‘Featured’ instead of ‘Sponsored.’ We are using the term ‘Featured’ because we want to make it clear to people that they’re seeing content from a Page or person they have chosen to connect to. Since people can see marketing messages from both Pages they have and have not Liked elsewhere on Facebook, we want to make it clear that marketers can only pay for stories to be featured in your News Feed if you have explicitly liked the Page. And because you are always connected to your friends, we are also labeling stories from your friends that have been paid to be featured in your News Feed as ‘featured’ to keep things consistent. We still hope to show an average of approximately one featured story in News Feed per day.” ( via TechCrunch)

Although this additional advertising option could lead to more highly targeted ads, the ambiguity in labeling leaves users wanting for more transparency between paid content and posts from friends and self-selected pages. And there’s even further potential for confusion: Facebook already uses the word “feature” within the context of unpaid, user-generated content. (A user can “feature” their own story to increase the size on an individual’s Timeline.)

This change could degrade both user experience and advertising practice on Facebook. If more than one “Featured” story runs per day, or people are confused when trying to distinguish paid content from user-generated, then users may choose to Unlike the pages and apps paying for “Featured” stories. That would defeat the purpose of companies looking to engage and interact with Facebook’s users. Not only will their Sponsored content fall short; if users unsubscribe then they could lose their audience entirely. It also could lead to users deciding to Unfriend those who litter news feeds with advertisements.

In the end, we all knew that Facebook ads – even targeted Facebook ads – were looming in the future, but I don’t understand why transparency in advertising content needs to be compromised. Keep paid advertisement – or content, whichever you prefer – in its separate place. Nobody wants the equivalent of a sneaky pop-up ad on their Facebook news feed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post first appeared as a guest item on the DuetsBlog.