Thursday, August 28, 2008

Shilling your friends the facebook way

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

A few years ago, I gathered with a group of friends in the living room of a house in Wandsworth. We’d all known each other for years, and we’d convened to hear a sales pitch from Jim for his new business.

Brian had been part of this group of friends since university, everyone knew he was struggling a bit with his income (or lack of it), and he seemed genuinely excited at the prospects this new venture offered.

When he got out his sales materials, we naturally took the piss – but it was good-natured, and we listened to what he had to say. Ten minutes in, and it became clear that what Brian had his hands on was a classic pyramid selling scheme.

He’d never come across one before, and the genius of it swept him up – statistics not being his strong point, he’d not figured out the unsustainability of the plan. His mates gave him a verbal kicking, first for being a mug, then for trying to sell them a pup. Then alcohol became involved, and the story got a bit fuzzier after that.

Brian still cringes whenever the subject is raised (and all his friends know it’s a dead cert when they need to play a joker). But the taboo that was broken was that of pitching your friends.

It’s what makes Facebook’s Social Ads an uncomfortable concept for many people.

Social Ads usually appear in a user’s newsfeed, and allow advertisers to target ads based on other users’ actions within the Facebook network. So if one of your friends bought something through a Facebook application, the system would tell all your friends.

Its first iteration, Beacon, wasn’t opt-in, and caused a storm amongst users, who were surprised to see themselves endorsing all sorts of products. Last month a class action lawsuit was launched by nineteen Facebook users who felt the programme abused their privacy, sharing details of their purchasing habits without their authorisation.

But whilst privacy is undoubtedly important to these users, it’s really just the legal weapon they’re wielding against the company. I can’t help thinking that what’s more hurtful is the abuse of friendship it creates.

So I’m not sure why anyone would opt in to this scheme (perhaps people are more exhibitionist than I think, or think their purchasing habits are more interesting to their friends than I do). But the new Engagement Ads launched last month by the site are nonetheless built on this assumption.

The film, Tropic Thunder, has already trialled the system – running a trailer for the movie that allowed consumers to leave comments about the movie – and other advertisers are already signed up to the programme.

Whilst these are softer, engagement (as the title implies) based concepts, they’re nevertheless making Facebook’s users into (albeit willing) tools of the marketing game.

This isn’t an impossible circle to square, but it’s one that demands great sensitivity and humour – because unless users are aware and happy to participate in a marketing venture of this sort, it will build resentment if they start to feel used – whilst their friends, who are on the receiving end of all this puff will start to see them as what casinos call a ‘shill’ – a player paid by the house to pose as a punter, to get games going and move them up.

And it’s the friends’ views that ultimately will count.