🖤 Donations of all sizes power our public service journalism Give Now

Facebook treats brands like they’re people

Molly Wood Mar 1, 2012

Facebook has always had a bit of a slippery relationship to words as we understand them in the English language. Take “Friend,” for instance. Sure, some of the people listed as your Friends on Facebook are people you genuinely hang out with, but is that guy from your third-grade class, whom you haven’t seen since, really your friend? Of course not.

Along the same lines, there will be no more advertisements on Facebook. Only stories. That’s part of a new approach to advertising and brand management that Facebook has just rolled out. “Lots of ads can add up to noise,” said Facebook’s Mike Hofflinger at yesterday’s announcement of the new approach. “Lots of stories are actually the basis of our relationships. Ads are good. But stories, it turns out, are better.”

Under the new system, a brand can have a Facebook Timeline, just like the ones you and I have even though we’re people and a brand is a brand. And those brands will behave a lot more like your friends. “You’ll see more ads in that right-hand column,” says Molly Wood, executive editor at CNET, “you’ll start to see ads in your mobile Facebook experience, which is something new for them. You’ll also see sponsors being able to buy their way into your newsfeed with sponsored posts that actually show up in among your friends’ status updates and baby pictures, and you’ll also start to now see ads when you log out of Facebook too. You’ll get those kind of desperate feeling chase after you ads that say are you sure you don’t want to click on Zappos again?”

Yeah, those kinds of friends are pretty delightful, aren’t they? Chasing you down the street, craving attention, always wanting to sell you something. Top of the Christmas card list, those folks.

As for why Facebook is doing all this, it’s about the money. “Well, Facebook is about to go public,” says Wood, “and they have to really demonstrate to marketers and potential shareholders they have a way to make money.”

But when you combine friendship with business, it doesn’t always go so well. In the new Facebook, you might be talking to your friend about going out to eat and then a local restaurant you like might jump in to the conversation and say hey, come eat here. Personally, I don’t enjoy it when a friend tries to sell me something. Gets awkward.

That’s the line that Facebook and these advertisers are now having to walk: how to be a valuable pal and not too aggressive but still sufficiently noticeable to close a sale. “First of all, I think we have to recognize that not everyone wants to engage with a brand as a person,” says William Ward, social media professor at Syracuse University. He says if this all works well, Facebook’s approach could be helpful instead of obnoxious. “If we were talking about Las Vegas and Facebook was paying attention and said, ‘Hey your favorite band is playing in Las Vegas on Saturday. We can help you get tickets for it.’ And I didn’t know they were playing, that to me would actually not be intrusive, but helpful. So, in that case maybe I would appreciate them being a little intrusive and entering into the conversation because they helped me discover something I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

This new Facebook feature is already in effect. The Timeline for the New York Times is pretty interesting, goes way back to 1851. I didn’t even know they had Facebook back then. Maybe they did but it was all steam powered.

Also in this program, another edition of The Robot Roundup. We hear about some robots that can find your keys, steer fish out of harm’s way, and even play the theme to James Bond

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.