But the crawl-before-walk approach doesn't quell what will surely be the social-networking site's biggest challenge: communicating to marketers what it has to offer, which could be a slow, arduous process.
Three marketers -- Paramount, Betty Crocker and Adidas -- are quietly alpha testing Facebook "engagement ads," units that let users become "fans" of a brand, comment on an ad or give a gift directly from an ad, making the process of doing those things far easier and likely leading to more brand fans on the site. These units join standard ads, which show up on the home page users see when they sign in. There are also social ads, which show up in users' newsfeeds when people in their networks interact with a brand. And then there are the very standard but targeted self-service ads, which show up on the right rail of a profile page.
Confused? You're not alone.
"I challenge anyone to name all the features available for marketers in Facebook. It's daunting," said Jeremiah Owyang, senior analyst at Forrester, who has been briefed on the new ad units. "To add another complicated tool, that's a big gap."
These new units are arguably intriguing, inviting users to take actions without requiring them to leave a page. Within a few weeks, Facebook will move the ad concept into a beta-testing phase with "tens of advertisers," said Mike Murphy, VP-media sales. He said Facebook is attempting to solve the demand-creation side of the online advertising equation as opposed to the demand-fulfillment side of advertising, which includes search ads, text links and performance display ads.
"We're convinced the web as a whole hasn't done a good job creating value on the demand-generation side," he said. "Social media creates that opportunity for marketers."
He's right, said Mr. Owyang, citing Forrester data that show that users on social networks are looking to communicate with others and express themselves; they're not searching for information or products. And that's why so many previous social-network ad incarnations have had such dreadful click-through rates. "This is a step toward the right way of doing it," he said.
There are three types of the new ads. One lets users comment on an element of the ad, such as a video or image. Paramount used this to promote its recent release "Tropic Thunder," allowing users to view and comment on the trailer. It "drafts off of writing on a wall or commenting in a news feed," said Tim Kendall, director of monetization. Another format lets users give a gift without leaving the ad. A third format lets users become fans of a brand without having to leave their profile pages and head to the brand page, as they do now. When users take action, it is broadcast to a handful of friends in their networks; marketers can choose to buy distribution beyond the organic delivery.
But Mr. Owyang warns that most brands are not staffed correctly to respond when someone engages with them through an ad. And the people running these campaigns tend to want clicks for dollars. "They're not set up for engagement or interactions."
Amy Powell, senior VP-interactive marketing at Paramount, the first marketer to use the engagement ads, does not run one of those brands. She said the commenting was a big draw and helped the trailer spread virally as people added their thoughts and those thoughts were shared with friends.
"You never know what people are going to say, but we were really confident of the movie," she said. "That was a big part of our decision to do this."
Also critical: being what she called "hyper-surgical" about targeting the right content to the right people.