In January 2012, your Facebook news feed will also feature Sponsored Story ads. Facebook's ad product Sponsored Story ads, are essentially updates of a user's friends, who have in some way, interacted with businesses and organisations on the website.
Sponsored Story ads, unlike regular ads, have the advantage of actually being endorsed by someone the user knows, and were so far featured on the right margin of the page.
This direct intrusion of sorts into the user's updates could be an added opportunity for brands to get closer to the consumer, and is bound to increase marketing activity on the social media platform. With the gradual rollout beginning in January 2012, users will see no more than one ad in the news feed per day. The ad, being identical to other regular updates, will be identified by a link below the post that reads 'Sponsored'.
Experts are of the opinion that this development will provide an opportunity for brands to further strengthen consumer engagement.
"It is definitely an opportunity for advertisers. These ads will be very non-intrusive. Most users, I can assure, will not even realise that these are ads. Facebook ads have been very much customised to the user experience. What is important for Facebook is that the user experience must not die," says Advit Sahdev, founder, Odigma.
Sahdev sees the development increasing click through rates, and expects it to rise at least 5-10 times more than what it is.
Brands have often measured their success on Facebook with the number of 'likes' and 'fans' on their pages. Sure, user engagement has been and will remain the key; this development can help marketers up the same and reach out further to the end consumer.
Nimesh Shah, co-founder, Windchimes Communications, says that this was long overdue, and further asserts how social media has got its sustainability model right.
"When social media kicked off, a number of websites did not get things right and the sustainability factor was not there. Facebook, too, began without ads, but had to get into it eventually. The site has changed its interface quite a bit in the past years to facilitate ads and one good thing is that the ads are targeted at relevant users," he says.
"From a brand's perspective, this is a classic opportunity to turn fans into friends by making the communication more interesting. The only important thing is to continuously engage with the user. A Facebook page will die if there is no engagement," Shah adds.
Sanjay Mehta, chief executive officer, Social Wavelength, agrees that this will enable brands to be more visible to the consumer in a subtle manner.
"It is interesting. Users know their friends have experienced the brand. They know what they are seeing is actually a validation," says Mehta.
A welcome clutter
As if the constant updates by friends on the timeline were not enough, the Sponsored Story would add to the existing clutter, wouldn't it?
Girish Mahajan, co-founder and director, Webitude, agrees, but not before admitting that it will be a positive chance for advertisers. He looks at it as yet another addition to the Facebook portfolio of features that adds 'virality'.
"Sponsored Story ads are done to increase engagement levels and this move should be very positive because of the viral opportunity. This can multiply effectiveness," he says.
"It is an irritant for sure when seen from the users' perspective, but for brands, it is an opportunity to be more creative. The 'irritation' to users can come down if the updates are interesting. That is up to the brands," adds Shah.
Will it work?
All agree that it remains to be seen how the theory is put into actual practice and how it turns out in the long run.
Mahajan points out that in India, except for some established brands, very few actually spend advertising money on user engagement. He adds that he has not seen too many Page Post-specific stories on Facebook.
"Users here will not be able to differentiate much between feeds. They will surely notice more feeds, but will they be able to absorb and distinguish? I have my doubts. I really need to see this in action first," he says.
Mehta says that while the development looks unique overall, there must not be overkill and the risk lies if the ads appear in the wrong context, especially since it is automated.
Shah looks at it as a double-edged sword which, if gone wrong, could prove harmful to both brands, as well as for Facebook. "Interference has been something Facebook has stayed away from, and this is a kind of interference. Facebook has to be careful about how much of this it allows, and not push it beyond a certain limit," he says.
Shah adds that a lot of users who are only interested in their friends' updates may not be very happy with mundane posts of brands being thrown at them, and the repercussions may be felt by Facebook as well, for allowing the same.
Like Mehta, he, too apprehends non-relevance and hopes that like other Facebook ads, Sponsored Stories ads, too, are targeted to relevant users according to their interests and habits on the website.