Facebook Is Selling “Stories,” Not “Ads”

I am sitting here at Facebook’s marketing conference in New York City’s Natural History Museum (TechCrunch has a liveblog here), and the big message Facebook is trying to communicate to the brand advertisers assembled here is that they shouldn’t think about Facebook as a place to show people ads, but rather to tell them stories. Facebook is a “storytelling platform,” says VP of product Chris Cox. Facebook marketing director Mike Hoefflinger put it more bluntly: “We are evolving from ads to stories.”

Just as Facebook users now all have their new, more visual Timeline, brand pages will also soon adopt the Timeline design. Brands will love this because it will give them a much richer canvas to market to Facebook users, including features such as pinned posts and new ad types such as offers.

With pinned posts, Facebook is following in the footsteps of Twitter, which introduced a similar concept on its brand pages in December. But Facebook goes way beyond what Twitter is doing. For one thing, it will now be selling ads in your news feed itself, not just along the side. Twitter for the most part has resisted cluttering the main user streams with ads, (although Promoted Tweets can appear there under some circumstances). Facebook ads will continue to appear in the top right of your Facebook page, but they will also appear in your feed itself, on mobile, and as well as in the logout screen (37 million people a day log out of Facebook, so that is valuable real estate)

But remember, these are not “ads.” They are “stories.” And brands are encouraged to use these stories to create one-on-one relationships with consumers. Usually these stories take the form of things people would like to share like videos of sponsored athletes (something which Red Bull does). A successful ad on Facebook is one that people want to talk about, and thus share on Facebook with their friends.

So how will Facebook make increase the chances that those brand stories will be shared? Probably the most important announcement today for brand marketers is a new Facebook ad targeting product it announced today called Reach Generator. The most likely people who will share a brand’s message are consumers who are already Facebook fans of that brand. Reach Generator is simply a way to target Facebook ads, or “stories” to those fans in different places on Facebook (in their news feed, on their homepage, on their mobile devices, at logout). Ben & Jerry’s, a beta advertisers, found that marketing to fans doubled their engagement rates, and Facebook says other advertisers are finding similar results.

Targeted advertising up until now involved guessing which consumers across the Web would be most likely to be interested in a marketing message. Facebook’s twist on targeted advertising is to show ads to people who have voluntarily stated their affinity to a brand. And those fans then spread those ads to their friends, but only if they don’t seem like ads. So brands need to tell stories.

It’s a return to Advertising 101. The best commercials on TV are mini-narratives. The best magazine ads look like art photos. The best ads online spark a conversation.

11 thoughts on “Facebook Is Selling “Stories,” Not “Ads”

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  1. So in a nut-shell they’re changing the brand page layouts, calling advertising something than what it is, and making brand pages more intrusive on users…good plan.

  2. Very interesting post, thanks for the insight. This is just the natural evolution of internet as a marketing tool, I suppose. I never thought of it in terms of how advertising on other mediums has evolved over time; I love how you related it to how the best TV commercials are mini-narratives. I noticed this the other day. It’s not just that the best are mini-narratives, they’re all mini-narratives now. We’re so ADHD as a society, we need short little 30 second stories in between our 30 minute ones. πŸ˜› But it’s a way to get people to hate commercials less.

    I wonder how users are going to respond to this though. Personally, I think it’s a little different from TV commercials. Making them mini-narratives made an already accepted form of advertising even easier to bear. In Facebook’s case, the act of making the ads more social involves also making them more more invasive, so I feel it may backfire. We all know Facebook users are not afraid to hold back criticism of new features. πŸ˜›

    • The trick is to make them seem not intrusive like most ads are. Because on TV or even in print, you consume the ads passively. On Facebook, you are being asked to share them actively. So it takes a different kind of storytelling (i.e. ad copy).

      • Ah, I see. So it actually isn’t really more invasive because the users can choose whether or not to share these ‘stories.’ I misunderstood, I was thinking these ‘stories’ were gonna start being posted by some automated advertising algorithm directly onto people’s timelines. So it really comes down to the individual brands’ ability to create content users are willing to share. That actually seems like a pretty sound idea if you ask me.

      • No, you are correct, these are automatically placed in people’s news feeds and home pages, etc. But for these ads to really be successful they require viral sharing, which is a second-order effect.

  3. This reminds me of the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign. I’m so cynical, but I won’t make any negative comments here on your shiny new blog which looks pretty interesting!

    • Heck yeah Mary, if you just look at their ad serving mhetod, they have become masters at creating a juicy environment where marketers can micro-target their specified audience thanks to all of the information we are giving up. I wouldn’t find it hard to believe, that they’re providing information to other sources as well.

  4. The love affair with social media. I love Facebook, because I don’t have a Facebook account. From what you say, the reasons for not having an account just grow stronger and stronger. All those brand ads/ stories will never intrude into my life. I can make my own choices for myself. Experiment, make mistakes, learn. Its like possessing The Cloak of Invisibility.
    I love technology that expands human potential, while Zuckerbergs Pied Piper diminishes it in my view. “Arrghh, someone just de-friended me! ” squealed some American girls on my train. No. They were never a friend. Friends are people, not clicks.
    Wish you luck with your blog. I wish us all luck with technology.

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