Have you ever had a party where you invite a new friend who doesn’t know any of your friends and a few weeks later, this new friend is spending a lot of time with your friends? Facebook’s Sponsored Stories are about to become many of those new friends that insert themselves in your friend’s lives – perhaps more than you want to. Sponsored Stories was launched a short while ago as a persistent piece of advertising inventory on Facebook. They show up on the right column next to your news feed so that you can see it at any time. Advertisers like it because it does not require a user or their friends to be viewing at all hours to see a comment about a product. In 2012, that line is going to blur further as Facebook will be introducing the sponsored stories into users actual news feed automatically – sometimes based only on your having liked a product or brand.
The Inside Facebook blog explains how the new integration will work – with the items being shown in the same size and form as your regular news feed items with the only difference being a small “sponsored” callout in the lower corner of the item. The items in the feed will supposedly not only consist of things you are connected to, but also your friend’s activities – forcing us to evaluate how much we want that active poster to be our friend…
While the word is that the change will come in gradually and users will only have one sponsored news feed item per day. There is no clarity about how long that one per day will last. The initial advantage for advertisers of the sponsored stories was that they could gain static placement on the page of users and their friends rather than hoping that enough friends see an organic post prior to it moving down the line. Does this new iteration just add more clutter to the feed and diminish the sincerity and power of user feeds as a whole?
Facebook likens this new feed to what Twitter does with its Promoted Tweets, but it remains to be seen whether the actual presentation will feel the same. While there is a legal case related to this type of endorsement concern going on, I think the bigger issue will be the dilution of genuine communications within Facebook. This could have longer-term ramifications for the company. What happens when the one per day limit is removed and then people stop updating as frequently? Does that mean the ratio of sponsored updates will be greater than organic ones? Will Facebook follow the short-term dollar signs of advertisers rather than the long-term health of the product?
It could end up having the effect that users don’t Like anything at all or participate in promotions that place endorsements into their feed. The implications across the board could be huge.