Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Facebook Gets Big Slap on the Wrist for New Ad Program

Popular social networking Website Facebook.com (for which Microsoft now owns a $240M equity stake) has been in the news lately, but not for good reason. It was recently revealed that, when a member purchased an item from one of Facebook's new advertising partner Websites, the information was automatically posted in the "news feeds" section of the site without the person's permission...sort of.

Here's how it supposedly worked: I buy something from a Website that's part of Facebook's new Beacon ad program (there are 44). A pop-up appears asking if I'd like the information to appear in my news feed on Facebook, a page that summarizes the most recent activity on of the site. If I click "no thanks" the information doesn't appear. However, if I quickly close that pop-up (which, let's face it, many of us do) then it's automatically assumed that I want everyone to know what I just bought online.

This, as you can imagine, is extremely intrusive, not to mention that it could have detrimental effects. The biggest example of such an effect is of one Facebook member who bought his wife a diamond ring from overstock.com (a Beacon partner Website), only to find out that the purchase appeared in the news feed for all his Facebook "friends" to see...including his wife.

Facebook has reportedly fixed the issue, requiring that a member now opt-in if he wants the informaiton published, rather than opt-out if they don't. Too little, too late for the aforementioned guy; and likely many others.

This brings us to an even bigger issue, which is how best to handle advertising in the social networking arena. The concept of Beacon is indeed a good one: if I just got a fantastic deal on a pair of designer shoes from some Website, of course I'd love for all my friends to know about it; and that partner Website would certainly love for me to tell them. It's like virtual word-of-mouth, so to speak. But it goes without saying that I, and no one else but me, should be in control of what gets published and what doesn't.

The situation can, in a way, be likened to spam mail, telemarketers, and even text messaged ads from cellular phone providers (yes, I've received a few of those!) In most cases, the companies obtained your information through legitimate means, but are using it to serve a purpose that benefits them, whether it be sending you targeted flyers in the mail, calling you about products for which they know you use, or sending you information about deals from stores you like. Facebook added a new variable: using your interests to generate interest from those who are like you (i.e. your "friends").

I'm not sure what Facebook was thinking: the company couldn't possibily have assumed that the 44 Beacon member companies would actually appreciate pissing off its customers for the sake of forced advertising. Nevertheless, the site appears to be cleaning up the situation, and making the appropriate adjustments to the Beacon system. In fact, eBay is reportedly set to sign up with the Beacon program in 2008: however, it will only publish information from sellers of products, not buyers. Smart move on eBay's part.

On another note, the bad press obviously hasn't hurt Facebook too much: according to the Associated Press, a billionaire in Hong Kong, Li Ka-shing, just paid $60 million for a 0.4% stake in the company. Ka-shing? Sounds more like Ka-ching for Facebook to me.

[Photo: Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.]

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