You Are the Ad: Digging Into Facebook’s Advertising Strategy

When I first  started looking closely at Facebook’s booming advertising business for an article that just appeared in MIT’s Technology Review, I was soon struck by an apparent disconnect. The social networking juggernaut clearly is gunning for big brand advertisers, hoping they will view its 600 million-plus audience as the next big ad opportunity beyond television.

Yet it appears that most of the ads on Facebook are actually from either small businesses or no-longer-small businesses (but not traditional brands) such as social games maker Zynga and daily deal service Groupon. What’s more, those ads seem more aimed at eliciting a direct response such as an email registration or a purchase on another Web site than they are aimed at branding, which is intended to implant a brand into consumers’ minds that might get triggered later when they’re ready to buy something. And between Google’s search ads and a gazillion display ad networks, online direct-response advertising is already a wee bit crowded–even if Facebook’s massive database of personal info holds a lot of appeal for targeting likely prospects.

In other words, it looks like most advertisers on Facebook aren’t yet using its ad platform for the very purpose it’s designed for: branding. Of course, it’s tough to complain about a company whose ad revenues are doubling, to an estimated $4 billion this year. But if Facebook is to fulfill the huge expectations of its investors, who are valuing Facebook at around $65 billion (give or take $10 billion or $15 billion depending on who’s counting), it needs to do more than provide just another way to drive a direct sale. It needs to capture–or create–a market out of the vast majority of ad spending overall that’s aimed at branding.

One way to do that is providing what Facebook has been doggedly pitching to Madison Avenue for years: ads with a social component, such as its recently introduced Sponsored Stories, in which people’s stated “likes” for a product or brand are turned into ads. These essentially are word-of-mouth marketing on steroids. David Fischer, Facebook’s vice president of advertising and global operations, lays out this possibility in detail in an interview I’ll post here shortly. Suffice to say, there’s certainly potential for brands to divert a significant portion of their television and print ad budgets–and a few are starting–but for a lot of brands and their agencies, that’s still on the come. For now, they seem more enamored of Facebook marketing tools such as Likes and Pages–which are free.

Another strategy is to create a new advertising market, as Google did with its search advertising. Search ads enabled very small businesses, as well as those with just an online presence, to place effective direct-response ads for a global audience for the first time. Likewise, Facebook could open up brand advertising to the business masses in a way no medium has yet done. That’s something Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg makes a good case for in my interview with her. Depending on how you define branding vs. direct-response, this may already constitute a good bit of Facebook’s advertising.

Either way, I came away understanding why investors seem so enamored of the company’s potential–but also why many people in the advertising business aren’t yet ready to place all their chips on Facebook.

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