Facebook gave a brief description of its new ads in a blog post:
“[M]arketers will no longer be able to purchase sponsored stories separately; instead, social context — stories about social actions your friends have taken, such as liking a page or checking in to a restaurant — is now eligible to appear next to all ads shown to friends on Facebook.”
Sponsored stories were killed off following a lawsuit against Facebook last year, which charged that the practice was in violation of its user’s privacy. The suit, which resulted in a $20 million settlement, hinged on Facebook’s use of its user’s likenesses in adverts without asking them for permission or compensating them. But despite ‘losing’ the class action against it, Facebook continued using sponsored stories for several months.
Now, Facebook is hoping that its new wording – social context – will offer it more protection against class actions. In reality, all it’s done is to confuse the issue further by eliminating all phrasing alluding to advertising. Beforehand, one could conclude from the word “sponsored” that the ads were at least paid for, and so users could see when their likeness was being used in advertising. With its new “social context” ads, this may be less clear.
At least Facebook did point out that its users are free to control who sees their information. Simply go to the Activity Log and you can choose if you want your likeness to appear next to ads or not.
It’s not a huge surprise that Facebook is merely shifting its advertising strategy rather than ending it. Sponsored stories were certainly very effective, as evidenced by Google’s decision to introduce its own ‘shared endorsements’ last year. Just remember that, while sponsored stories are done and dusted, Facebook still has every intention of using your data as a vehicle to push its ads – it’s just doing so in a sneakier fashion than before.