Whatever one thinks about Facebook or online privacy, the test by the social-media platform to run real-time relevant advertising is a move in the right direction for a free service looking for viable ways to monetize.
In March, Facebook quietly started testing intent-based advertising, delivering real-time ads based on user wall posts and status updates. The delivery model is being tested by only 1% of users worldwide (about 6 million people). If a consumer mentions babies, she might get targeted with an ad for strollers or formula. If she mentions pizza, a coupon from Pizza Hut could appear.
It's been almost amusing watching some of the critical reactions to this news. Some have portrayed it as a step to a new world order of intrusive advertising. The fact is, the actual ads remain where they've always been -- over on the right-hand side of the screen. But instead of slightly off-putting personal ads, consumers get something a little more relevant. And remember that Facebook has been using wall posts and status updates as factors for ad targeting for awhile (just never in real time).
A few critics have all but licked their chops in glee at the prospect of ridiculous or offensive ads resulting from taking words in a status update out of context. As if anything that happens on Facebook will be worse than what happens on news sites every time an automated ad network serves up vacation packages to the latest exotic locale struck by extreme weather, earthquakes or terrorists.
One of the strangest criticisms is that Facebook users might game the system. A user, for example, might fill his status updates with mentions of cheeseburgers or car washes in an attempt to get served a coupon. There isn't a marketer on the planet who would complain about this. The very act is perhaps one of the strongest opt-ins we've ever heard of. And writing about cheeseburgers isn't any more annoying than that constant stream of "Farmville" updates, "Mafia War" shootouts and spyware-riddled quizzes that Cousin Bob is polluting his stream with.
The one gray area we can think of is that users don't sign up for Facebook expecting status updates to be shared with marketers in this manner. This is a concern that will have to be addressed. But realistically speaking, the average Facebook user has shown repeatedly that he doesn't care how or why Facebook serves up its ads. Let's give this time and see how it works.