Luke Dringoli
Luke Dringoli
Editor, Social Networks

Facebook Sponsored Stories Turn Your Life into a Commodity

This post originally appeared in our February  issue of “Live Report from the Future of Marketing,” our monthly Post-Advertising newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

Facebook’s Stories project has, for all intents and purposes, fulfilled its end goal. Now a fully-fledged, first-of-its-kind ad network named Sponsored Stories, not unrelated to Twitter’s Promoted Tweets/Trends/Accounts, it allows brands to affix their name (and corresponding Facebook page) to an organic, consumer-generated activity in the hopes of populating the well-intentioned promoter’s friend network with a more compelling push to purchase. This approach is infinitely more engaging, and invasive, than any brand-spun messaging could hope to be—and that could be what makes it pure (or evil, depending on your perspective) genius. It raises the inevitable question: Is your privacy even more at stake these days? Let’s look behind the stories.

The assumption is this: When we make decisions about what we want to buy, we instinctively look to our friends and family — consciously or subconsciously — for cues and tips. It’s the same guiding principle behind customer reviews—we, as humans, prefer product/service recommendations and information that come from those we already trust. Call it peer pressure if you like, but buying behavior, for many, is determined by what their friends are buying. A friend’s check-in at her favorite coffee shop, a friend’s post on his car brand of choice, or a shared link from a favorite tech blog all conveniently feature the corresponding page crucially accompanied by a “like” button. (Facebook calls these social proofs “cues from friends.”) All data shows that featuring these cues makes for significantly more persuasive messaging.

Facebook explains Sponsored Stories in their own words:

As reported by Ben Parr and Mashable, Facebook is (publicly) quite proud of their new product for reasons beyond an advertiser’s return on investment. As Jim Squires, Product Marketing Lead at Facebook, proclaimed: “The advertiser is not controlling the message; it’s about actions.” What he means is that advertisers—including feel-good all-American first-round participants like Coke, Levi’s and Budweiser—are unable to pick and choose between activity that portrays their brand names in a positive light and those that sling negative, slanderous statements or, in general, just give the product or service a poor assessment. That, crucially, means advertisers have no chance to cherry-pick the best mentions. On the flip side, there aren’t any opt-outs allowed by users, either.

So the ad is firmly in the hands, and at the whim, of those on either vocal end of the spectrum. Democracy in action. If a brand has a legitimately satisfied audience, it’ll be seen clearly—and will spread quickly—through the claims of those actually using and/or experiencing it.

A claim coming through loud and clear, by way of an honest-to-god consumer’s perspective (and a friend at that)—it’s advertising through brand-propagated word of mouth, where only genuine products and messages prosper. Whether a positive or negative message, any given brand can only hope to elevate the conversation and inform a wider (and keenly-interested) audience. The end result is a pure, unaltered suggestion or wink of sorts from a friend, brought to you by the relevant subject at hand.

Ah, but what about the seriously negative implications of all this on your personal privacy? The act of shamelessly converting social escapades into monetary gains is intrusive to say the least. By all means, there’s something particularly unsettling about, as both the Washington Post and CNN have put it, literally being “turned into an ad.” But in this day and age, most users of Facebook have some idea what they’re signing up for—an incredibly useful, engaging, and widespread service that conspicuously charges no fees to use. And when you go through the trouble of not only opting to show your allegiance to a certain brand, but also tagging them in a status update, you honestly can’t have any illusions that your posts will become brand fodder some day.

What perhaps makes the new platform’s success even more notable is Facebook’s reluctance to introduce new advertising methods after the spectacular failure of their Beacon initiative. Another sign that they’re taking brands seriously came when the network introduced long-rumored major changes to the ways in which brand pages are able to operate within the larger social ecosystem. No longer self-contained entities, pages are now able to peruse the profiles of fans and fellow brand pages no differently than a real-life, living/breathing person would. (Scary, sure—but no more scary than when the U.S. Supreme Court in the late 1800s decreed that corporations have the same rights as you or I.)

Look at the bright side: Facebook’s Sponsored Stories initiative is one very powerful way that brands are increasingly being forced by consumers to be honest. It’s music to our ears. It’s also one more reason to place a premium on content—both the consumers’ organic content (which is now advertising copy) and the brand’s original content (which is now the most important asset a brand has). Brand-featured actions are perhaps the most persuasive and genuine advertisements and sponsorships yet—because they’re not dictated by a faceless brand voice, but framed in the actions of a target’s confidantes. With each new, more forcibly earnest form of advertising, the public at large will grow more calloused and immune to the fake, pre-rehearsed attempts at persuasion of old—advertising as it was, and as it will (soon enough) never again be.