Facebook Missteps: Sponsored Stories & The Omission Of Permission

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I can be a Facebook supporter (some may say apologist), but today I have a bone to pick with it.  

Where others frequently attribute shady intent to everything Facebook does, I see a company legitimately trying to balance the needs of users with the demands of advertisers who fund the free service. Consumers love Facebook, so much so that Facebook now accounts for one of every four page views in the United States, yet you and I pay nothing for it. Or it is more accurate to say that while we provide no cash to Facebook, we do, in fact, pay with our time, attention, data, permission, and clicks (which Facebook converts into cash).

But even Facebook supporters can and should question when the social network takes a step that pushes the envelope of best practices in permission marketing, and I believe it has done just that with Facebook's new Sponsored Stories product. What I find frustrating is how tantalizingly close to perfect the model is, yet the omission of a single feature makes all the difference.

Here's how Facebook Sponsored Stories work:

  • You post a status update about a brand, such as a check-in, like, or a piece of praise.
  • Because that signal of affinity is so ephemeral within the news feeds of your friends (or perhaps may never even be displayed there), the brand can now choose to pay Facebook to turn your status update into an ad. 
  • Your friends (and only your friends) will then see your status update in the right gutter of Facebook.com, along with your name and profile picture.

Facebook has taken pains to point out that this new ad product is legal, ethical, and authentic -- and it's right. This allows a brand to take a legitimate brand observation that a consumer has already shared with his or her friends and turn it into a longer-lasting impression that will only be distributed to those same friends. It avoids the messiness of sponsored conversations (where brands pay people to spam their friends) because the initial Facebook post occurs authentically and without a material relationship between the poster and the advertiser. Furthermore, as Jim Squires of Facebook Product Marketing says, “All privacy settings are honored,” meaning your status update will only be visible as a paid ad to those same folks you have allowed to see your content in the first place. Facebook also has developed a page within its Help Center to educate consumers on the implications of Sponsored Stories

There is no doubt in my mind that this is an authentic and legal advertising product, and I'll leave it to others to determine the philosophical implications (such as whether this moves us "ever closer to identifying completely as consumers, trying to please the corporations"). But there is a single, practical question that comes to mind: Why didn't Facebook offer a programmatic and scalable way for users to approve each and every paid distribution of their content? In our new, more transparent world (which Facebook has helped to create for us), wouldn't it be more "social," respectful, and transparent to alert consumers that their posts will be used as paid advertising and allow consumers to grant explicit permission on a case-by-case basis?

I can imagine the possible arguments against giving consumers the chance to say "no." Perhaps there was concern too many would reject the opportunity, but wouldn't the fact that some reject and others approve their posts as ads actually increase the authenticity, value, and attention given to the ad impressions? Or maybe it was feared that consumers would ask for a share of the revenue, but Facebook controls this and simply does not have to offer a revenue share (nor should it, since it would call into question the motivation of every bit of brand praise offered on its platform.) 

And by avoiding the opportunity for permission, Facebook has created the potential for brands to damage relationships when consumers are surprised and disappointed to see themselves become advertising. Perhaps someday this sort of social advertising will be commonplace, understood, and accepted, but advertisers participating today in Sponsored Stories run the risk of backlash when people ask, "Who gave you the right to turn my post into advertising?" and the response is "Please see paragraph 2.1 of Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.With consumer concerns over privacy in social channels increasing, brands could find that the negative reaction of the minority outweighs the benefits of Sponsored Stories.

So close and yet so far. I cannot imagine that it would be difficult for Facebook to add a single step to its Sponsored Stories process that protects brands and consumers while simultaneously making this ad product more effective. Envision signing into Facebook, seeing you have a message, and learning that a brand wants to share your post with your friends. You may think "Hell no" and click "decline," or you may click "accept" with a sense of pride that the brand wishes to use your content and a feeling of affinity in being able to support a favorite product or service.  

Reaction to Facebook's Sponsored Stories is percolating across the social web. Perhaps consumers and brands will accept it, but if the number and volume of detractors grow, Facebook can and should add a permission feature rather than scrapping this ad product. Sponsored Stories has enormous potential!  I'd be happy to see the authentic praise my friends offer for their favored brands, provided they've considered and approved it; that would be far more interesting to me than any traditional ad. And I'd be thrilled to have Disney -- a brand I love -- take anything I post and turn it into an ad to my friends, but please do me the courtesy of asking first.  

Facebook came close to getting its execution of Sponsored Stories perfect, but I hope it will quickly discover the necessity of giving consumers real-time control rather than relying on the IP language buried in its terms and conditions.  


Augie This new Sponsored


This new Sponsored Story reminds me so much of the failed Beacon. Same basic idea -- share your shopping habits without your permission -- in a way that is addy. Facebook continues to disrespect its base by monetizing actions in a way that turns their customers into employees -- unpaid ones at that.

Consumers get the ads. They get that those ads are the price of a free Facebook. It's a well understood and acceptable model. Consumers don't get that Facebook should be able to monetize the consumer's interactions with the platform. It has a dirty feeling to it -- especially if the consumer is unaware of what is happening. And as I'm guessing given that the average person isn't half as informed as the folks that read this blog, I've got to think this new feature will soon meet with a deluge of negative feedback.

I'll close by saying that I think you nailed it with the permission thing. If I knew that a person gave permission for their image to be used in conjunction with an ad for a brand/location or whatever, it would make me ascribe more value to the advertorial. As it is now, if I'd see a sponsored story for someone liking a brand, I'd half wonder what the brand was giving away as their "build my Facebook following" sweepstakes that day.

Keep up the good posts my friend.

Beacon vs. Sponsored Stories

Thanks, Tom!

I see some significant differences between Beacon and Sponsored Stories. Beacon automatically shared information consumers had no intention to share based on their surfing habits off of the Facebook platform. Sponsored Stories takes something consumers already shared with their friends and reshares it in a different (albeit paid) format to the very same friends.

I think Sponsored Stories is legal while Beacon was not, but your point is well taken--consumer reaction could be quite negative. Given how easy it would've been for Facebook to add a permission step and change the entire dialog around Sponsored Stores, I'm curious at the omission!

I think you nailed it with

I think you nailed it with the point about fear of consumers saying no -- which I think they'd do.

It's one thing to have stuff shared in the feed -- quite another to have a brand imply sponsorship or allegiance by stuffing your face/comment into an ad.

Spot on! Great analysis of the upsides and issues


When news of this rolled out a few days ago I thought it was both insanely brilliant and incredibly creepy. It just depends upon which side of the marketer/consumer line you're standing on.

My question about it provoked some thoughtful responses on -- what else? -- Facebook. I uploaded that conversation with other marketing peeps here:
Continued here:

Social Profiles: http://www.CarriBugbee.com

Thanks, Carri

Appreciate you sharing the positive feedback and the conversations you had on the topic. Have a great weekend!

Is this really an issue?

Augie, if you're already sharing (publishing) this same information with/to your friends, isn't the new engagement ad, simply just another spot of real-estate on Facebook for your friends to see what you decided to share with them in the first place?

Sure it can be argued that brands are making money off these "actions" (hence paid media) but aren't they making money off your posts/actions to begin with (via earned media)? The only difference here is that brands are paying Facebook to take what you've already decided to publish to your friends and put it in a different spot (which happens to be an "ad unit") on Facebook.

Is this really a big deal since it's only served to the people you intended to share it with in the first place? If you don't want your friends to see your FB actions, then what's the point of engaging on Facebook?

Legal, but is it advisable?


Great points. As I noted, there's no question it's legal. But I think the question here is whether it's advisable--does it meet consumer expectations? Will it seed trust or more mistrust of brands and of Facebook? And will consumers be okay with it or will it cause negative reactions that could harm the brands who are paying for this new ad product?

Based on reactions I'm hearing from people, there are concerns. That doesn't mean Facebook is in the wrong, but it does means there is reason for caution for brands using the Sponsored Stories product.

In the end, you are right--this is just resharing information with the same people. But would you want a marketer following you around, listening to your conversations, and excerpting parts of your conversation--authentic though they may be--for ads back to your friends? If you posted a photo to your friends, would it be okay for a marketer to use that photo in an ad to those same friends?

Asking for permission rather than relying on legalese in Terms and Conditions statements has always been a best practice. I don't think Facebook is in the wrong with Sponsored Stories--I just think they could've been more right (and made this product even stronger) by adding the opportunity for people to approve the paid use of their content.

Risky model for the brands

Spot on Augie, Legal does not mean best practice. The argument that it’s fine to do so since my “friends” already saw my comments about the brand holds on thin ice. It is one thing to post my sentiment but another to see myself in an advertisement for a brand without an explicit permission.
Some will actually think it’s fun some will take offence and that’s why an explicit permission is probably recommendable for the sake of the brand. This might actually hurt the brand more than it does facebook. For a brand this model is a risky without the explicit permission.


Thanks for the dialog, Xavier. I hope to see Facebook evolve this program more in the future!

Not interested in becoming a corporate shill


While from a pure marketing angle I get and understand all the arguments for but from an end user I don't want every word I speak or type t be 'redistributed' as a ad. I wonder what would happen if I gave a few keywords for a brand to pick up on that would trigger an ad but the status is really a negative take on the brand. Will they be able to tell? Will competitors be able to game this system to the disadvantage of their competition?

I just think it's poor judgment but Facebook either A) is incapable of good judgment on privacy matters or more likely B) really could care less about what their users think.

Right now, with no other real competition they can pretty do what they want and they know that most users won't know what is going on or just won't care either way. Sad but true. User apathy will enable Facebook t get away with more than most.

Facebook will . . .

Facebook will do anything with your data that it can without hurting its businses, and then a little bit more.

Based on past behavior, I think these decisions are economic. If the privacy settings are loose enough to cause a backlash strong enough to cut into revenue, they won't do it. If they are tight enough to cut into revenue, they won't do it. The privacy zone for Facebook is between those extremes. But that's an economic decision, not a moral one.

An economic decision

I certainly agree--it's an economic decision. I'm not looking for Facebook to make or define marketing morality, but as noted in my post, I feel they would have protect their brand, their advertisers' brands and actually improved the advertising product had they added permission into the mix.

As a marketer, I'd be willing to explore their new Sponsored Stories product, but I'd be doing so cautiously. It's not outside the realm of possibility that brands using this new ad product could get caught in a backlash if the wrong consumers with the right influence decide to call Facebook and its advertisers out for not securing permission.

I've felt Facebook has done a good job this past six months in rolling out products with a fairly strong sense of privacy and permission, but on this one I think they could be in riskier territory.

Facebook can be a powerful

Facebook can be a powerful marketing tool. It's important to realize, however, that anything we put out there can potentially become the property of Facebook. That's why it's important to always read the privacy statements in full and be aware of your rights. If for whatever reason you feel uncomfortable you can take down the page.