Is Facebook the Database of Un-intentions?

Facebook logoJohn Battelle once called Google the ‘Database of Intentions’. What he meant with that was that Google tracks the search terms that people type into its search engine. It catches what they are looking for on the web. Their intentions in other words, hence the ‘Database of Intentions’. It is precisely for this reason that Google works well for advertisers. Searchers have the intent of searching for something. They express their search by keyword and advertisers can bid for these keywords. Thus, advertisers get highly specific traffic directed to their websites at a fair price.

Let’s have a look at Facebook by comparison. As reported by TechCrunch, FlowingData ran an interesting article a few days ago, which showed the sort of applications that are available to Facebook users. Applications are provided by 3rd party developers and Facebook allows them to operate these applications on their platform. In a sense, the type of these applications gives a very interesting insight into the intent of Facebook users. Most interestingly, the vast majority of applications are classified as ‘just for fun’, followed by gaming. Those familiar with Facebook will understand what ‘just for fun’ means. These are all the vampire kisses, hugs, pokes and so forth. I can assure than when you get ‘bitten by a vampire’, there is no serious intent involved.

Today, I read an article by Bob Gilbreath. Bob is a marketing executive who reported on his experience of using Facebook as an advertising platform. Bob’s conclusion is damning. His results for both CPM (cost per impression) and CPC (cost per click) are below industry average, both for targeted’ groups within Facebook and for Facebook as a whole. You can read the whole and well written analysis on his blog. To sum it up: advertising on Facebook in his experience was worse than on any other normal website. Facebook is less effective than the industry average. This impression seems to be mirrored by others whom he refers to, including Chris Anderson, Fred Wilson and Nick Denton.

Wow. Worse than average? How is that possible? Isn’t the theory that social networks are supposed to be highly specific and effective in terms of the kind of traffic that they can send to advertisers?

I still believe that to be true. So maybe this was a Facebook specific problem? Thinking about this, it suddenly hit me. Facebook is the place where people go without any specific intent in mind. This is shown clearly by the kind of ‘just for fun’ applications on facebbok. Facebook users simply go to fool around, ‘just for fun’. Thinking back to Google’s, as John Battelle expressed it, ‘Database of Intentions’, maybe Facebook is the opposite of Google. Maybe, Facebook is the Database of Un-intentions.

If this rationale holds water, then this must make Facebook’s traffic the opposite kind of traffic to Google’s traffic. Given that Google’s traffic is the most valuable of the web, this would make Facebook’s traffic the least valauable. This could explain why advertisers seem to get such a low return on their money at Facebook.
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Free Products are Online Marketing

freeJohn Battelle has got a series of very good articles on online marketing on his blog. Check them out here and here. A third post is yet to be published.

Both articles are on building brands online. Basically what John is saying is that online advertising works well where you have very strong brands that attract a particular type of user that can then be marketed to. These brands can command higher CPMs that generic publishers, for example. The yet to be solved problem (solution probably to be revelead in his third article) is about the fact that online formats for marketing don’t really work that well, or not as well as online formats (he uses TV ads and magazine ads as examples). An example might be that car ads on TV or in a magazine leave a much bigger impact with the viewer than banner ads do.

Two things came to my mind when I read this.

The first one was that it is logical (and actually obvious) that when you attract a certain type of viewer to a site you can command high CPMs. After all, it simply means that one can target ads better to a more relevent audience. The key problem is that one actually doesn’t know who is looking at what on generic sites, making targeting difficult.

My second thought was that at least one format that works extremly well for advertising online has already been invented. It is called free products. Why do you tink does Google have some 50-100 free products out there? Just for fun? Or because the revenue avalanche is going to hit them via these products? No, the reason is much simpler. It attracts users. Google embeds their brand in their brains every day. They then go out and use Google search. This is a great way to build a brand online.

I believe there are many ways in which publishers, manufacturing, and service companies can build their brand online. One way to do it is via free services. I am sure people will come up with other ways. I think John is right to say that the classic online banner ads won’t do the trick. But look at the bright side: if it was that easy, what would you need great marketers for?

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