News flash: Yes, Facebook is selling you to advertisers

There’s a breathless report out today that provides an “exclusive look” at how Facebook plans to use the new Timeline feature to attract advertisers looking for more social ads. But is it really that surprising to think Facebook would be pitching brands on that kind of thing? After all, the social network has already said that it is launching “sponsored stories” into the news feeds of users in early 2012 — a development that also doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has thought about Facebook’s business model for more than five minutes. And it’s not just Facebook: making ads socially relevant is the future of advertising.

The piece at Betabeat — written by someone the site describes as “a former CTO… who was briefed on Facebook’s advertising strategy” — describes the announcement about sponsored stories, as well as the blog post that the social network has been promoting on the site that responds to frequently-asked questions about its approach to advertising, and then says that Timeline was launched in “what seemed like an unrelated move.” But it’s not clear who exactly would see it as an unrelated move, however, since virtually everything Facebook launches has some kind of ad-related component to it.

Yes, Timeline is also about advertising

The Betabeat writer seems concerned that the giant social network is somehow pulling a fast one on its users by offering them a feature like Timeline and then promoting it to advertisers as a way to connect their brands to users who identify with them. As the post puts it (in bold type, so you don’t miss it how important it is):

What most users don’t know is that the new features being introduced are all centered around increasing the value of Facebook to advertisers, to the point where Facebook representatives have been selling the idea that Timeline is actually about re-conceptualizing users around their consumer preferences, or as they put it, “brands are now an essential part of people’s identities.”

The Betabeat post then goes on to suggest that the name Timeline was “cleverly designed” to conceal the fact that your profile no longer arranges information chronologically, and that the “graph rank” algorithm Facebook uses to determine what content to show you in your stream is influenced by a range of factors, including “direct payments to Facebook itself.” Scandal! The writer even refers to this as “payola” — which conjures up images of men in trenchcoats exchanging paper envelopes in dark alleyways.

Is this really such a shock? As more than one person has pointed out during the meteoric rise of Facebook to almost a billion users, if you are not being charged for the service then you are not the customer — you are the product that is being sold. That’s a crude way of putting it, but the thesis is largely correct: since Facebook doesn’t charge you or anyone else for hosting the 250 million photos that get uploaded every day, something that likely costs hundreds of millions of dollars a year, it (like most other free services) makes its money from advertising and related features.

Social advertising is the future, like it or not

But more than that, the whole concept behind “social advertising” — whether Facebook’s version or the kind that Twitter is working towards, or the kind Google is trying to engineer with its Google+ network — is to find a way of making advertising more relevant to users. Banner ads are a dying medium, and have been for years. The clickthrough rates on typical ads are so low they can barely be detected, and even Facebook’s ads have relatively poor conversion rates. Ads like sponsored stories, which will feature friends and people from your social graph, are an attempt to solve that.

Plenty of people will undoubtedly resent this (or even sue over it), just as they resent being shown specific ads based on their browsing history or their search terms. But connecting users to the brands they identify with is happening whether we like it or not — and some people actually volunteer to do this, because they like a brand or a product. In any case, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Facebook would be at the forefront of such an effort, since this is just a more sophisticated version of what it has been trying to do since it launched the ill-fated Beacon project in 2007.

Provided Facebook and other services give users an easy way to opt out of (or opt into) this kind of thing, as they have with “frictionless sharing” and other similar features, I don’t see how this is any different than what the social network has been doing since it first started offering advertising. In some ways, it might even be preferable to the irritating and untargeted ads we get everywhere online. And we can expect to see more of it, not just from Facebook but from every other free social service. If you don’t like it, there’s an easy way around it — cancel your account.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users dutchmassive and