Why Facebook should tread carefully with expectant parents

At any given time, there’s a moment when at least some Facebook users feel like the social network has gone too far in asking them to share. For me, that happened yesterday when Facebook introduced a new life event for user Timelines called “expecting a baby.”

Now, Facebook actually tested a similar feature in its profile settings a year ago that allowed people to declare they were expecting a baby. That was questioned by some at the time though it addressed the habit of parents who were setting up profiles for future children. And, of course, Facebook users have chosen on their own to share information about their pregnancy through status updates and pictures.

But now, Facebook is pushing a future baby as an optional life event that can go on your Timeline, the visual journal of your activity. And that, to me, comes off as an overly aggressive move to transform Timeline from a chronicle of things that have happened into an advertising opportunity that could tragically backfire.

For me, Timeline is a place to share things that have occurred in the past. And almost every life event on Timeline involves things that have already happened. When Facebook first introduced Timeline, founder Mark Zuckerberg called it “a great way to discover all the things people have done their whole life.”

Yes, conceiving a child is an accomplishment that many people choose to share. But the real moment to celebrate is when conception leads to an actual birth: and Facebook knows that.

With the “expecting a baby” life event, users can enter the gender, due date and location of the baby along with the other parent — or not, if the person is single. Mothers and fathers-to-be always have the option of deleting the life event, which disappears from their Timeline.

But what happens in that instance when the baby doesn’t surivive, as happens in a quarter of pregnancies? Unlike getting engaged, another life event on Timeline where the two participants are in control, pregnancy can end on its own despite the best intentions of the parents. People have already found out how awkward and sad that can be when they post ultrasound pictures of babies that don’t make it. But does Facebook really need to categorize a piece of news that essentially hasn’t happened?

This comes off as a desperate attempt to drum up advertising and get users to check off future events that make them more of a target for advertisers. Facebook told TechCrunch that while it has a targeting option for advertisers to advertise against expectant parents, it won’t be using this new Timeline entry data just yet. But you have to imagine that it will come into play, something I predicted when Timeline first appeared.

I don’t begrudge Facebook from trying to make money by advertising to expectant parents. It’s a lucrative business and as one colleague told me, some expecting parents welcome the opportunity to see brands and products they have no experience with.

But if Facebook were smart enough, it would already be able to target users effectively without having them provide them with structured data on their pregnancy status. By encouraging people to declare this early, it gives Facebook months to hit these people with specific ads for products. I’m not sure why consumers need to go out of their way to help Facebook advertise against them when they can just choose to broadcast when they want to at their own discretion. And of course, they don’t have to, if they don’t want to.

Some parents will love this and many Facebook users will think I’m overreacting. But I think Facebook needs to think carefully about how it pushes people to share about things that are out of their control. In the best case, it comes off as a crass grab for revenue. But in the worst case scenario, it can lead to some added heartache.

Image courtesy of Flickr user harinaivoteza