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Op-Ed: Let’s Stop Pretending Facebook Ads Benefit Users

HUGE marketing strategist lead Josh Seifert has returned with his monthly contribution to this here site. As the headline suggests, Seifert now weighs in on the value (or lack thereof) of Facebook advertising.  Take it away, sir.

When General Motors announced it would be pulling millions of media dollars from Facebook it highlighted the ongoing tension between advertisers – who want more compelling ad units – and Facebook’s purported defense of the Facebook user experience.

Facebook has always claimed to stand for the user, but a popular Geek & Poke comic captures the cynical reality—if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. Moreover, the idea of social ads as a user-centric model is more than a little flawed. One user’s experience as the unwitting Facebook spokesman for a 55-gallon drum of personal lubricant makes this clear.

Advertisers want to deliver their messages to millions of potential customers on Facebook. They do this with fan pages or branded apps that they get for “free”—at least from Facebook—and purchase social ads to actually get people to those pages. While pages and apps can be powerful, they’re worthless if you can’t drive consumers there somehow. To date, brands have used paid, owned and earned Facebook opportunities to create successful campaigns.

Ford helpfully suggested on Twitter that perhaps GM is just doing it wrong—Facebook ads work, when “combined with engaging content & innovation.” Or maybe engaging content works, and Facebook ads just don’t. GM isn’t walking away from Facebook altogether; its executives have just concluded that the display advertising Facebook sells is less effective and more restrictive than what they can buy elsewhere.

As a media company that generates revenue, Facebook isn’t a whole lot different from a massive ad network like Google’s DoubleClick. The real value that Facebook creates for advertisers and brands has less to do with being another big digital media company, and much more to do with the ubiquitous technology that makes sharing anything insanely easy. When brands focus more of their resources on creating compelling digital content—things that people care about sharing—they’ll be able to reach the audiences they’re after. The boon for agencies is the opportunity to create that content, capturing money once earmarked as media spend. And the more distinct the line between Facebook as technology company and Facebook as a media company becomes, the more effort agencies can put towards creative things that are actually effective, while wasting less time on display ads that aren’t.

The real user-centered “ads” on Facebook are the social shopping ones that are coming from smaller e-commerce companies like Bonobos, Fab.com, Gilt Groupe and Proper Cloth. These companies give their customers store credit when they post about purchases and attract new customers. Rather than passively appearing to support some random product that I “liked,” Fab.com will pay me to tell the world about the socks I just bought. If we’re all going to be shilling products anyway, I’m going to feel better about continuing to do business with the companies that create good experiences—like providing me with value I can use—rather than those that pay Facebook to use my likeness.

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