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Are Facebook?s non-social mobile ads good for brands?

Facebook?s growing focus on non-social ads on mobile and desktop gives marketers potentially powerful new ways to reach the social network?s large user base. However, given Facebook?s strong social heritage, these ads could also annoy consumers if not handled correctly.

Under a lot of pressure to monetize its growing mobile use, the social network is reportedly testing a new non-social ad unit, its second attempt in a week to drive mobile ad sales with this approach. While Facebook is looking to attract advertisers by giving them a way to target ads based on criteria other than what a user has ?liked,?  users themselves have come to expect that that they will not be inundated with a lot of irrelevant ads on Facebook. 

?There is a fine line between relevancy and spam, especially on mobile,? said Alistair Goodman, CEO of Placecast, San Francisco, CA. ?The mobile device is so personal, and there is certainly a chance that users could be turned off if the marketing is out of context, and not relevant to their interests.

?Facebook has an incredible wealth of user data - age, gender, hobbies, keywords ? all targeting attributes that advertisers want to buy,? he said.

?That said, ?Don?t diminish the user experience? has always been the prime directive. The question is ? has that changed??

Bowing to pressure
Facebook is reportedly running a small test that will allow marketers to promote Page posts to users beyond their fans in the News Feed. The ads will appear on both desktop and mobile and will look like other Page post ads in newsfeed except that they will have a ?sponsored? label.

The news follows last week?s announcement that Facebook is testing a non-social ad unit promoting apps in users? mobile  News Feeds. The ad unit was the first non-social ad unit from Facebook that is not triggered by a user?s or a friend?s activity (see story).

Facebook has been under a lot of pressure recently to monetize its mobile business as use increasingly migrates to mobile and these developments could be reflection of the need to please investors. So far, the market has not responded well to Facebook's efforts, with its stock dipping below $20 for the first yesterday since its initial public offering in the spring.

?This is a fascinating development which could be an indicator of pressure to generate revenues, now that Facebook is public,? Mr. Goodman said.

?In their other advertising efforts, Facebook has been trying to establish their own socially-oriented ad units that differ from the rest of the online ad ecosystem,? he said.

?With this test, Facebook may be capitulating and saying that advertisers can buy audience targeting the way they do everywhere else.?

Optimal experiences
The risk of introducing more non-social ads is that Facebook mobile users will be bombarded with ads for brands they are not interested in or that are not relevant to them. If that were to happen, Facebook users might become annoyed  and end up with negative feelings toward the social network and advertisers. 

One of the ways Facebook could minimize any potential backlash from consumers is by delivering these ads only to users who have opted in to receive them.

?We have always advocated for opt-in marketing on mobile and enabling consumers to set preferences that puts them in control,? Mr. Goodman said. ?For consumers, the optimal experience is when they receive something on their phone that they perceive as a valuable service, and not intrusive, so it specifically does not feel like advertising.

?This approach reflects well on both the provider of the service as well as the participating brands,? he said.

?For Facebook, this could mean linking their sponsored stories - which build general brand awareness - to a specific, location-based offer sent on mobile that has a clear call to action in it - for example, ?Facebook fans get $1 off at our Main Street store today.??

Already, there is some indication that Facebook users will not take well to non-social ads.

In a recent Harris poll that commissioned by Placecast, users were asked what they thought of Facebook targeting ads based on preferences, and just one-third of U.S. adults polled trusted Facebook to use their profile information to target ads to them.

This suggests that more control, opt-in, and special offers that users can only get as a Facebook customer are more likely to succeed, per Mr. Goodman.

The right balance
With mobile use of Facebook continuing to grow, the social network needs to figure out how to make money in mobile.

While initial results look promising ? Facebook recently said approximately half of the $1 million per day run rate it is seeing for Sponsored Stories coming from mobile ? the social network will have to work hard to find the right balance between driving revenue and maintaining the integrity of its platform.

?The social platforms and brands alike need beware of the consumer?s wants in those environments and take care not to abuse the integrity of those experiences or risk creating a negative association with their brand,? said Kerri Smith, Director of Mobility, iProspect, Boston.

?At their core, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest were designed to connect users to each other, not to force content upon them,? she said. ?Social platforms would be wise to solicit feedback from their users regarding integration with advertising and potentially allow them to opt-out. 

?This allows users to have greater control of their experience on the platform, ensure that those experiences are positive - and therefore provide a reason to continue to interact - and creates a better qualified, more receptive audience for advertisers."

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York