Forget making the world more open and connected. Facebook has a more pressing, arguably more difficult task ahead: creating ads that its billion users both "like" and actually like. "We weren't going to put a lot of ads into News Feed if people didn't think it was a good experience," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tells Vanity Fair's Kurt Eichenwald in a rare interview focusing on the new News Feed, for a lengthy feature released online today. Which... of course Facebook needs to maintain a "good experience," lest the social network scare away all those users, à la Myspace. So then how does Zuckerberg appeal to advertisers and appease his people at the same time?
The Facebook CEO obviously laid out his News Feed dilemma to Vanity Fair before he introduced the refresh a month ago at an event where he said the "personalized newspaper" needed to "reflect this evolving face" of users loving photos more than ever. And, well, he ended up not putting "a lot of ads into the News Feed" — he ended up making them a lot bigger. While many users still haven't seen the new News Feed roll out on their screen, the sponsored posts they will see are a lot more noticeable and often appear at the top of the feed. Surely, they'll bring in dollars, but they're also pretty invasive for users, which may run counter to the vision Zuckerberg laid out.
But before the News Feed unveil, Zuckerberg described the brand experience on the social network to VF as "slightly less good than organic content," suggesting that he one day hopes to make them "as good" if not "better" than the banalities users post on their Facebook walls. "We still have some work to do there," he went on to tell Eichenwald. Indeed, it's still a pretty tough proposition to make ads truly work on Facebook, since ads that are in one big column as opposed to adjacent or in a commercial break are inherent nuisances, especially for a dominant tech company that depends on keeping its giant audience as engaged as humanly possible.
Which us brings us back to the big question: How does Mark Zuckerberg truly monetize Facebook without pissing everyone off?
At first, Facebook thought social ads would be the key — like the "sponsored stories" that show brands your friends like — but the social network's brass has since mostly abandoned that idea, as AdAge's Cotton Delo explains: "Social context is now an ingredient in Facebook's marketing recipe instead of being the whole meal," she writes. Pure social turned out to be a little too creepy and not "organic" enough. Rather, Facebook now uses "social" as a "foundation," Facebook's product management director for ads, Gokul Rajaram, told Delo. So, for example, Facebook can use all that offline shopping data that exists for targeted advertising. It also has a "custom audiences" feature that lets brands upload their shopper email addresses and match them to Facebook email addresses to serve the exact right ads to someone who, say, needs a dental check-up.
The theory here is that these more targeted ads will come off as a lot more natural than an ad saying your friend "likes" Amazon. They'll be more useful, too. But the ever-privacy sensitive world of Facebook is not quite used to that kind of all-knowing ad experience. If I bought some DayQuil at Duane Reade and all of a sudden saw a Duane Reade advertisement for Kleenex on my Facebook feed, that might weird me out. Facebook assumes we want these better, more accurate, more "organic" ads more than we prefer no ads at all. Sure, they might be better than the completely useless banner ads for H&R Block currently flanking my News Feed. But at least I'm used to that. As soon as it starts to noticeably feel like Facebook knows too much, the experience starts to feel more weird than benign. Then people might think about leaving, and Mark Zuckerberg will have a lot more work to do.