Facebook recently announced details of a new advertising initiative called Sponsored Stories. The name is a little sneaky, as these so called ‘stories’ will be written unbeknowingly  by Facebook users, and re-purposed as advertising.

So how does it work? Well Facebook will allow advertisers to find conversation that is happening around their brand, either in a newsfeed, in Places check-ins, likes, or actions within a Facebook application. This content will then be plucked by the brand, turned into a sponsored ad unit, and made visible to the creator’s network of ‘friends’. For more detail on how Sponsored Stories works, CNet has written a nice explanation.

It’s a clever idea, if you set aside the obvious privacy issues, but surely there is huge potential for this initiative to go wrong, in a variety of ways.

It’s unclear what level of automation is involved, and how much human moderation will take place, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were cases of negative brand references being re-purposed into Sponsored Stories. Sentiment can be so difficult to judge sometimes, particularly when irony or context is involved.

When reading about the initiative, I was also reminded of ‘jam echelon day’ which happened back in 2001 when I was a reporter for ZDNet, whereby individuals tried to jam the global surveillance system by emailing and posting to the web hundreds of messages containing trigger keywords. I’ve seen friends of mine already trying to do this with Facebook Sponsored Stories, joking around with funny brand-related status messages.

As consumers get increasingly frustrated by social networks hijacking their conversation for commercial purposes, there is the potential that either a backlash might occur whereby users try to jam the social media machine, bombarding it with carefully crafted dialogue containing brand mentions, or that they’ll go elsewhere. The web has a history of nomad culture, where people get tired of one place and move onto the next thing, and I believe Facebook in particular should be careful to protect the interests of its user base.

Facebook has been eager to promote the word-of-mouth aspect of Social Stories (check out this Facebook video), but this needs to be treated with caution. Posting a status message about being in Starbucks, or in a Nike store, is not necessarily an intented recommendation. Users may be unhappy about being positioned as advocating or endorsing a brand, if their conversation is taken out of context.

Either way, Sponsored Stories is a neat idea from an advertiser perspective, but it will be interesting to see how this one unfurls. If you see any good examples, please let me know!


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