About two weeks ago, I noticed a sponsored post at the top of my Facebook News Feed. It was from a Facebook friend who is, in real life, more like a casual acquaintance. The post, which was a genuine endorsement of Bonobos, was noticed by the company, which then paid to sponsor it at the top of his friend's feeds, including mine.
For the past 13 days, the post has been a near permanent fixture at the top of my News Feed, appearing more than a dozen times since May 2. Since then, the post has amassed a long comment thread, chronicling the confusing, conflicted life of the sponsored post. In it, users go from indifferent, to frustrated, to downright angry.
This type of sponsored post started appearing in the U.S. last fall to mixed reviews. At their best, Facebook's sponsored posts are supposed to provide a brand with a targeted and very personal connection to Facebook users. The posts come straight from users' friends, so they're meant to feel like recommendations, not solicitations. But as we can see below, this identity-borrowing has its limits.
The ad doesn't appear to violate any of Facebook's advertising guidelines, but examples like this are the worst-case scenario for Facebook's advertising efforts. Instead of feeling serendipitous, ads like this one are a constant intrusion and, as in this case, can begin to reflect poorly on the user whose post was sponsored. They're somehow less natural-seeming than straight-up News Feed ads. And they're far more alienating to users, who feel, for lack of a better word, used.
Here's my scenario, and one that is no doubt playing out for millions of other users on Facebook. See if it feels familiar:
At first, reactions were generally positive or at least indifferent.
The initial poster seems almost happy to have had his post chosen. You can see below he is even helping by correcting the price.
Three days later, the post is still at the top of a lot of feeds. People start to get restless/confused.
Five days later, general unrest sets in. "This is the Facebook version of an STD."
Day 8: Frustrated friends of the poster offer to pay to have the post deleted.
You can see those unfamiliar with Facebook's sponsored posts are confused.
Thirteen days later, the poster seems exasperated. "I don't really know what to do at this point," he says.
Update: Alex Priest, the original poster, emailed to clarify a few points. He writes:
"I sent Bonobos an email a couple days ago because I thought it was weird and the response they gave me was 'Woah – totally wild. I hope you had a great weekend despite the facebook craziness. Please be in touch if you have any other questions or concerns and have a great week!' They sent me a little 15% off code when I asked about it, but I get the impression they do that with almost anyone who writes in and says something positive."