This new ad trend on Facebook has me feeling uncomfortable.
Publishers are already in a spiral of dependence on Facebook’s traffic — and now it’s coming direct from ads by the subjects of their stories.
I spotted something happening recently in my Facebook feed that has me chin-scratching. Take a look. Maybe it’s not new, but it feels new to me.
These are sponsored posts: ads shared by brands — one by a shoe maker called Allbirds, the other a dietary supplement by a company called Elysium Health,. But they’re not linking to stories, videos or material produced by the companies themselves — they’re linking directly to outlets on mainstream publishers’ sites. In Elysium’s case it’s a blog post on Scientific American, and in for Allbirds it’s a feature story from the New York Times.
They’re “suggested posts”—that’s Facebook-ese for an advertisement.
At first blush, this might seem pretty innocuous. Facebook’s suggested posts have been around for years, and this is a 2017 version of the blurb or the poster quote, right? “Dave, we found this great quote from a hack that we can use to promote ourselves!” “Great, mate. Slap it on EVERYTHING!”
But then, inevitably, you note that the promoter has done the age-old trick of selective quoting. Sure, Elysium has “more stars in its firmament” than others — but in Scientific American’s context, the point is not necessarily positive (the story is, after all, called “The Anti-Aging NAD Fad”.)
And the Times piece, although it is also a little softsoap, positions Allbirds as trendy specifically because it’s an agreed element of uniform for the mindless automatons in the land that fashion forgot (that is: San Francisco.)
“Silicon Valley likes a uniform. Standing out with a personal style in tech is generally shunned, since it implies time spent on aesthetic pleasures, rather than work. Tech leaders often adhere to strict personal dress codes (like Mark Zuckerberg’s gray T-shirt), and young entrepreneurs study the social media cues of the venture capital class, who tend to select investments in part based on who looks like them. And so, for now, this insular world has settled on Allbirds.“
Well, I suppose all press is good press.
But here’s the layer here that intrigued me. These aren’t just poster quotes; they’re actual promotional campaigns that are linking directly to the source. If they’re successful, they will push some volume of traffic to these publishers — perhaps not much, but not zero either.
Publishers are already attached to the Facebook traffic hose; dependent on it, even. But since Facebook makes it almost impossible to discern the source of traffic that comes from inside its platform, you may not realize that your story’s success. So you could have a situation where journalists are looking at their stats and probably getting a little excited to see a little attention bump (the Scientific American piece is two years old) while publishers are able to convert that attention into revenue. And it’s because of an advertiser (although, note, Facebook owns the advertiser relationship.)
It makes me uncomfortable. Sure, commercial publishers have always had a symbiotic relationship with advertisers — and we’re probably worse off in the long run because of it.
This blurs the lines in a way that makes me feel odd. Facebook, after all, is already under fire for the way its advertising engine was used to manipulate information and mislead voters in last year’s election.
I’m particularly interested in this because I was lucky enough that Anxy magazine recently got a great write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle. We were proud of it, and shared with our friends, and it did good things for our business — a big jump in new subscribers. Should we have built an ad campaign around it? How does that change our relationship with the source material? I get what’s in it for advertisers, completely. The audience will eat up something that looks like a publisher is promoting their own story; they won’t necessarily read it as an ad; and the brand gets the lift they want.
But it also feels like something publishers need to be wary of. As somebody who sits on both sides of that divide, I’m watching and thinking.
Is this new? Am I right to be concerned?