For those of you who use Facebook regularly, have you noticed any recent News Feed updates about a friend uncharacteristically “liking” a company or product which they would not normally associate with? If so, this was no accident; no slip of the mouse-click, no inebriated web-surfing incident. This phenomenon is part of what’s becoming a major trend: personalized web marketing, and Facebook has much to learn about how to use this more effectively.

In recent weeks, Facebook has ramped up their use of what they’re calling “Social Ads”. What this does when enabled (which is the default) is periodically pair you up with one of their sponsors to generate a “like” on your behalf. Everyone who subscribes to your updates will see this sponsored “like” in their News Feed, but you are not alerted about it in any way. This leverages your personal connection with your Facebook friends in an attempt to deliver a more effective form of advertising. The following are real examples of such, taken from my personal account (with identities skewed).

If this new marketing tool would have been used carefully, it could have been a long time before anyone would have noticed. Where Facebook has failed is due in part to its social network being based on real relationships. In the three examples above, each time it appeared on my News Feed, I was immediately suspicious. Why would someone with near-perfect vision “like” a website about glasses and contacts? Similarly, why would a fan of metal and hard rock ever be caught dead listening to pop group One Direction? And lastly, who really likes their bank enough to publicly declare it?

These ads are not only failing to connect, they’re causing additional confusion by randomly associating themselves to one of your friends. If Facebook is sitting on such an overwhelming wealth of personal user data, why aren’t they leveraging it more carefully to yield maximally effective marketing? Instead, they seem to have taken the lazy route of pairing person X with sponsor Y without much insight as to which pairings make the most sense.

As a form of improvement Facebook should be considering, let's look at brand-name clothing as an example. With Facebook already working on facial recognition for auto-tagging, it would be quite feasible to scan someone’s tagged photos to scrape any visible brands they wear. Since logos are of fixed size and of limited variation, this would seem far easier than finding two eyes and a nose in a multitude of photos. With a personalized brand preference determined, Facebook could then roll out ads where you “like” the brands directly or closely related to those you actually happen to like! This form of data-first advertising would be far less intrusive to the individual being featured, and is a lot less likely to draw negative reactions as in the examples above.

It does not take a room full of number-crunching experts to determine that people don’t like to be used for marketing, particularly if it’s for products and companies that don't match their own personal values, preferences, and image. As Facebook explores ways to turn its 750+ million users into stable revenue, they will have to try a lot harder than these weak marketing attempts. If you agree, and Social Ads marketing is not for you, there is a way to opt out.

How to opt-out of Facebook Social Ads

  1. Visit your Facebook Account settings (requires log in)
  2. Click "Facebook Ads " (in the sidebar)
  3. Click "Edit social ad settings "
  4. Next to "Pair my social actions with ads for ", select "No one"
  5. Save your changes

[EDIT]

Based on recent observations, it appears as though Facebook will only generate ads based on companies or products you have previously liked, although many of which you did before such implications existed. This was not the behaviour originally exhibited. The social ads continue to occur without your knowledge when enabled.