The Facebook Flea Market

Today I logged into Facebook and was greeted with the ad bar below: FacebookAds

You know it. You've seen it. Facebook ads are a junk shop; a seemingly random miscellany of hastily constructed, poorly targeted and (sometimes) vaguely seedy-looking pitches for things I couldn't even conceive of clicking on, let alone purchasing. I often post a "howler of the day" on my Facebook page (poor Grant has been named before) as a joke, but I think Facebook has a real problem here.

Now, when I point this out, some of you (correctly) rush in to remind me that all of the tools for better targeting are there in Facebook, so yes--it's not wrong to say that the seething vortex of sin and degradation that is my Facebook ad bar is the fault of crappy marketers, not Facebook.  After all, Facebook knows that I live in downtown Boston (my zip), that I'm married, my age and that I have multiple degrees. So the fact that I continue to get ads for meeting singles, overnight degrees,  American Apparel soft porn and landscaping for my 18th floor "lawn" is surely down to the spray-and-pray tactics of lazy marketers, right?

Well,yes...but allow me to throw two additional spanners into the works, here.

First of all, I do place some responsibility on the shoulders of the advertisers, but not exactly in the way you might think. I'm not sure that lecturing joescrappyonlinedegreefarmandgrill.com is going to have any great impact. But there is one ad in the diorama of failure above, from an advertiser who should know better, that actually does resonate with me--the Sony headphones ad.

I happen to have a headphone "problem" and do, in fact, have a number of Sony 'phones in my collection. Am I going to click on that ad, though? Of course not. I'm not going to click on it because Facebook's ad bar is typically such a slough of despond that I have very little sense that my click would go anywhere reputable.

Where you choose to advertise says a lot about your brand, right? If I were launching a new line of vitamins (and let's face it, why not?) I could advertise in GQ, Men's Health or "Get RIPPED!" (the latter, hopefully fictional). Now, there are reasons why you might advertise in any of these, but for each you have a sense of not only the content, but also the advertising--your neighbors in the "mall" of that publication. Location, location, location. So the only advertiser I would fault in the ad banner I posted would be Amazon, or perhaps Sony, for choosing to put a booth pitching $300 headphones in the middle of a flea market.

What advertisers like Amazon and Sony should do is hold Facebook's feet to the fire more on the placement of their advertising. Herein lies the second, and biggest problem--Facebook's benign neglect of that space. Saying that it's the responsibility of the advertiser to use that space better is akin to putting the inmates in charge of the asylum.

In the 90's, I did a ton of research in the radio industry (in fact, if you live in or near a top 50 market, there is a very good chance I consulted at least one station you listened to in that market). We worked very hard on the "pie" of the radio hour--the "clock", as it's called. Typically, that clock is about 45 minutes of the stuff you wanted to hear (the music or talk content) and 15 minutes was advertising and promotional messages. ALL of it, however, is "content" to a listener, and all of it was researched and optimized. If you spent thousands of dollars researching the optimal content for a relaxing station, for example, but ran SCREAMING car dealer commercials in between the music, you would essentially be throwing your money away.

Magazines, newspapers, TV networks and radio stations ALL regulate the quality and content of their advertising, and all make choices. If these "heritage" media can do this, I expect the technological sophistication underpinning Facebook to render that a trivial problem. You might (wait for it...) need some humans involved in the process, because to date the machines haven't proven worthy.

To me, the next step for Facebook is not figuring out how to optimize my friends, or expose me to more branded content. It's making better use of the space they already have to get me to take action. Facebook has enough information about me to make a pretty good guess about what interests me, and they know me far better than any of the advertisers on my page. If Facebook wants to be the matchmaker for a relationship between me and an advertiser, it seems to me that it's incumbent upon them, not the advertiser, to make a better introduction.

To me, the opportunity cost of this is a killer. Imagine how powerful Facebook would be if they got this right?

What say you? Am I off base, cranky, or both? The comments are yours.