Sunday, March 04, 2012

Ad placement on Social vs Search sites

After my last post about experimenting with the ads on Facebook, I had a hearty FB convo with a friend about how ads on Facebook are almost always less relevant than what could be presented to a user if they're doing a search (Google, Bing, etc). It's interesting, since I sort of had that in the back of my mind, but it didn't click until this friend mentioned it and then I couldn't get it out of my mind.

In fact, I asked others on Twitter as well as Facebook about this and EVERYONE said they avoid the ads on Facebook. The most common reason I heard is that they're just not interested in looking at them while on Facebook and many said that when they did look at the ads, they were usually not very relevant. This general marketing malaise is pointed to in this article about brands shutting down their Facebook stores since users don't seem to go beyond clicking 'Like'.

As I've thought this through, I broke this down as follows:

On Facebook (or any social site for that matter), the user is very casual. They're likely on there to share something about themselves (status, photo, check-in, etc) or see what others are sharing. While they may stay on the site for a long time, the casual nature of their usage means they're not there for any particular reason. So even if an ad is relevant, it may not be relevant at that moment in time. If that's the case, then it can be very difficult to convince that user to spend more than a moment even glancing at the ad let alone actually click on it.

My friend's comments about FB ads
It may happen sometimes, but it's rare. Just to note how rare it may be, I've provided a screenshot of a friend's status talking about the ads she sees on Facebook.

On Google (or any search site), the user is typically very transactional. They're likely there for something very specific and want to get the most specific answer or result. The search results may be what the user is after, but an ad with dead-on relevance can be very important for the user. So even if they generally try to avoid ads, the ad placed at that moment can be exactly what the user is looking for.

I've got some thoughts about why ads aren't relevant in the moment when on Facebook, but I'll get to that in a future post when I talk about "big data"

This all seems so obvious now that I've mulled it through, but it does make me wonder what kind of ads could ever work in the context of a social site?

Well, lo and behold in the last two weeks we've actually seen some glimpses on Facebook itself and at their Marketing Conference (fMC). I saw the first instance as is described in Ryan Spoon's post about a sponsored Macy's ad which shows up at the top of the news feed. When I saw this ad, I was actually kind of confused by what I saw, but I think it's something we should (and will) get used to seeing. Here's a liveblog of the fMC from last week which goes over a lot of the direction that Facebook's headed. In some sense, they're breaking new ground in the ways that ads are presented to users and the ways in which they allow brands to use the platform to build awareness and potentially even sell.

And that for me is the key thing. It's very clear that a brand can build awareness through smart usage of social sites like Facebook. Whether it's a specific ad placement or an on-going engagement with users, I do think users will pick up brand messaging while they're on Facebook for casual, social purposes. However, I'm still very much wondering if that casual user can be converted into a transactional user who will do more than click 'Like' but will also go on to purchase something. That conversion is pretty clear on search sites, but I'm keen to see how that plays out in the new social web.

In future posts on this subject, I'm going to try and tackle the ways in which "big data" could be used to provide more relevant ads. I've got some thoughts on that, but I'd prefer to have further discussions with friends to help crystallize my analysis. For now, I hope you've found this interesting!

What are your thoughts on ad placement on social sites like Facebook? How do they compare to search sites? How does your mindset on either type of site affect your impression of ads?

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