Starting this week, Facebook is "thoughtfully and slowly" rolling out its latest ad product: a predictably personalized thing called featured stories that will appear in users' News Feeds. The industry blog Inside Facebook spotted the new posts -- which look almost identical to regular posts -- on Wednesday and confirmed with a Facebook spokesperson that the posts were indeed part of Facebook's new ad strategy. Along with "thoughtfully and slowly," the other words Facebook is emphasizing in the feature is "clearly labelled." Last month, the company said it hoped to "show people no more than one Sponsored Story in their News Feeds per day," though ZDNet's Emil Protalinski says, "This is no longer the case, as Facebook now says you may see more Featured stories 'if you visit your News Feed a lot.'"
Of course, the fear of ads appearing in Facebook's News Feed has always been that it would be perceived as creepy, like pretty much every new product that Facebook rolls out. Although we expect some scrutiny regarding privacy, the personalization aspect of the new ads seems more useful than invasive. Protalinksi describes the workflow:
For the above ad to appear in your News Feed, two things need to happen. First, you must have already Liked Ben & Jerry’s Facebook Page, or one of your friends must have interacted with Ben & Jerry’s Page. Second, Ben & Jerry must have chosen to have the ad promoted to users who have Liked its Page.
Alternatively, a story you wrote can also be featured as an ad, but it will only be shown to people you originally shared it with. A business may want to do this in order to get more people to Like its Page by showing off someone important Liking their Page, or underlining interesting content someone posted on their Page. Facebook is likely hoping the fact that since the story is being shared between friends, it will be considered more relevant than a traditional ad would be.
So that's why Facebook wants you to Like everything all the time! (We actually suspected this since the now-ubiquitous button first was announced in 2010.) However, the friend link suggests that Facebook is catching on to the idea that button fatigue is settling in with users. Sure, some people love clicking around the web, Liking all kinds of crap, but others eschew the little button, perhaps for the (somewhat justified) fear that it's nothing more than behavior tracker. That's the wrong side of creepy, we've heard. But in that case, Facebook's found another way into your feed through your friends posts. Based on Protalinski's description, it sounds like writing a Status Update -- ahem, "Story" -- that mentions a brand could be turned into a Featured Story that appears in your friends' News Feed, whether they like the particular brand or not. We'd need to see this in action before getting all judge-y, but it feels a little bit bold based on what we've heard.
Then there's the big question: what's next? The New York Observer's BetaBeat shook the snowglobe of public opinion a bit recently with a scoop about how Facebook designed the very fancy new Timeline profile design in order to pump ads into your life story. This is classic Facebook-rage-inducing stuff, and Facebook was quick to quell anxiety that your experience on the social network would soon be riddling with invasive ads. "Timeline doesn't change anything for advertisers because we don't share anyone's personally identifiable information with advertisers," a Facebook spokesperson told The Atlantic Wire last month. "Like with all products, we try to help advertisers understand how they work, but this is nothing new."
So far, the Featured Stories seem to be appearing to a very select group of users. (We were unable to find one anywhere in our feed, for instance.) Nevertheless, we've contacted Facebook for more details about the Featured Story program and will update this post when we hear back.
Update (3:15 p.m.): Facebook offered a few more details about how the News Feed ads work in an email to The Atlantic Wire:
People will begin seeing Sponsored Stories in their News Feeds today -- this will be a very slow roll out and we will be labeling these stories as "Featured" so that we can make it clear to people that they’re seeing content from a Page or person they have chosen to connect to. The stories respect your and your friends' privacy settings, and people will only see stories about people and Pages they've already connected to.
We hope to show people an average of about one story per day in their News Feeds. We'll be testing a number of rate limits to better understand how many stories to show, but we are not filling News Feed with Sponsored Stories and we don't plan to. Also … neither Sponsored nor Featured Stories do NOT show up in people’s Timelines. Timelines are curated by individuals.