Sponsored Content: Facebook Hits a Snag

June 22, 2012

The SEO (search engine optimization) crowd thought it had a winner with sponsored content. Pay Facebook money. Crank out some verbiage. Watch those clicks come tumbling along. What seems to be tumbling are Facebook ad opportunities. “Problems for Monetization: Lawsuit Forces Facebook to Let You Opt Out of Sponsored Story Ads” suggests a “stumbling block.” Was Facebook assuming that its “members” would ingest advertising as news without complaint? Personally I enjoy advertising centric editorial content. I used to work at a newspaper and then a big magazine company. The advertorials were often labeled. Sure, tiny type was used, but if you looked, you would see the words “Sponsored by…” or “A message from …” or a similar statement. I flipped through a slick travel magazine in the doctor’s office and it looked to me as if most of the editorial content was sponsored. But I may be overly sensitive.

Here’s the passage I noted:

For those less familiar with Sponsored Stories, when a Facebook user interacts with a business, such as by Liking a Page or Page’s post, using an application, or checking in to a physical business, that business can pay to have the news feed story that could normally appear be shown more prominently or frequently in the web and mobile news feed, or in the ads sidebar to friends. Because they seem like organic content, and feature the faces and names of friends as an automatic trusted referral, they’re clicked more often and are more influential on viewers than traditional ads.

Even the lingo is from the Land of SEO. Example: “Organic” just like beets and carrots from the farmer down the road here in Kentucky.

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An alleged advertorial. Source: http://pdfcast.org/pdf/writing-sample-advertorial

Sponsored content is a very big deal. The reason is that consumers tune out ads. Do you remember the commercials which run in motion picture theaters before the show starts. I don’t. I play with one of my electronic distraction devices. On a desktop computer’s big screen, there is enough real estate to stuff a range of ads to lure the surfer. On a mobile device, the ads are really annoying. So how does one pump up the click throughs? Easy. Sponsored content that is shaped information.

Shaped information is tough for some people to identify. To get a sense of the challenge, check out A 50 Year History of Disinformation by Peter Viemeister. As a result, the content is consumed and according to information in the article cited above, performs “much better than traditional ads.”

What’s the fix?

Some are harsh. Facebook users can elect to turn off the ads. Yikes, bummer. Others can be sidestepped such as a provision to have users under 18 “represent they have received parental consent.”

Here at Beyond Search we label sponsored content, which generates questions. People reading Beyond Search wonder why a company like Polyspot would sponsor a story about search. Well, Polyspot is in the search business and we are covering topics germane to Polyspot’s interests. No big surprise.

What’s our take on this “sponsored content” dust up?

First, Facebook may have been somewhat casual in rolling out its next big money maker. I think sponsored content is the future of conferences, magazines in print and digital form, consulting analyses from the azure chip crowd, and other “objective” sources of information. The approach certainly had some unforeseen consequences for Facebook, and I think the company will recover.

Second, the Facebook situation is probably igniting ideas at Microsoft and Google. With lots of traffic, the pay to play model works on some level. Working around the Facebook situation is a useful intellectual exercise. Would Knol have been a killer product if Google had gone pay to play? Interesting question.

Third, consumers will not know how to differentiate sponsored from “regular” content. I am confident in this statement because our tests show that humans perceive content from a computer as authoritative unless it is obviously wacky. Even then, stories on the Onion can pop up in meetings as “real” information. The failure to deconstruct online information or even the “articles” in the revered Harvard Business Review is standard operating procedure. People are too busy. People make assumptions about the “intent” of a particular management procedure. People see snippets of information as the “whole” story. People see the world “real” and assume that the information is indeed accurate.

The SEO crowd has been pushing sponsored content for some time. Facebook’s approach was one that attracted attention. Will Facebook recover? Sure. Will “regular” content predominate in online going forward? Probably not. The need for revenue is too great. Money forces a certain mindset. Do you remember the health articles which looked like editorial features in the New York Times’s magazine? I do. Advertorials pitching specific medical procedures. Great for the high school student looking for a short cut to a research assignment and for the addled 68 year old whose life involves making medical appointments. Facebook, did you fumble the basket filled with gold coins?

Stephen E Arnold, June 22, 2012

Sponsored by ArnoldIT

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