Feeling Heat: Why Facebook Changed Controversial Ad Program to Opt-In Only

FacebookWhether you use Facebook or not, you should be watching these developments.  What happens with Beacon over the next few weeks will make a huge difference in how internet users are treated by websites and their advertisers. 

It almost made it through the month of November without succumbing to pressures to make changes.


Facebook Beacon, the new “hypertargeted” social advertising program that has drawn negative attention from across the internet, received an overhaul on November 30, less than a month after its launch.  There are still points of contention that organizations such as MoveOn will continue to press, but the most notorious feature has been removed.

Instead of having to opt-out to prevent personal purchasing data from showing on a user’s page and their friend’s pages, Facebook members now have to opt-in.  Despite future controversy over other issues, this will be the last major change for a while, and here’s why…

Members are important, but cash is king

The potential to pave the road for advertising dollars to be realized in a new way through social networks is too big of a prize to let it go.  With over 50 million members, there is no reason why Facebook should stop taking advantage of their best asset – user data for targeting.  In the press release from November 30, Facebook says that they recognize “that users need to clearly understand Beacon before they first have a story published, and we will continue to refine this approach to give users choice.”

Notice the perfect wording.  They have left the door open to revert back to opt-out versus opt-in in the future when their users “clearly understand Beacon.”  Will they ever go back?  Of course not.  By leaving the door slightly open, they can more easily negotiate with advertisers before more follow Coca-Cola and jump ship.  Their hope is that even with the opt-in requirement, the advertisers will still see a good return and will dismiss any previous thoughts of leaving.

Problem solved, right?

The outcry was fast and harsh.  MoveOn started their part of the public bashing with a petition.  A group (and probably hundreds of others that didn’t really make it off the ground) was formed that is currently over 50,000 strong.  Facebook, stop invading my privacy took 9 days to reach that level.

Many of the stories about the program focused on cases where the data served in the ads had a strong negative effect.  Christmas gifts were ruined, cheating boyfriends were outed; Beacon took Facebook from matchmaker to matchbreaker in days.  Some of the stories were funny.  Others were sad.  All centered around the confusion associated with opting-out.

With that problem solved and strategically announced on a Friday, their hope is that the news will be discussed over the weekend with the fewest viewers and virtually forgotten on Monday.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is pretty darn bright

In 2006, Facebook added a News Feed feature that basically told anyone everything that someone was doing.  Very quickly, Zuckerberg gave a public apology that “we really messed this one up.”  They made the appropriate changes and moved on.

Now that they’ve been MoveOn’ed over the advertising issue, an apology won’t do.  An apology means admitting wrongdoing. With advertisers involved, admitting wrongdoing is like admitting to the advertisers that “you bought something that’s already broken.”

Zuckerberg and his team will fight a three-front war: to keep the advertisers, to keep the users, and to battle the negative press.  It will be a true public relations test, one that Facebook has never had to take.  Still, Zuckerberg has enough resources to overcome it without losing face.

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Useful links pertaining to Facebook Beacon:

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JD Rucker

+JD Rucker is Editor at Soshable, a Social Media Marketing Blog. He is a Christian, a husband, a father, and founder of Dealer Authority. He drinks a lot of coffee, usually in the form of a 5-shot espresso over ice. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.

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