Remember when Facebook's advertising system Beacon used to get all in your face with self-published inserts on your status page? That's not going to happen again--Facebook's finally ditched Beacon, and partnered with Nielsen in a new ad deal starting this week.
Beacon created controversy right from the moment it was launched in November 2007: It was a system that utilized a sneaky cookie-like code to monitor your activity on external third-party websites, and then sent back that data to Facebook so it could tailor advertising specifically towards user activities. Immediately privacy concerns were voiced by MoveOn.org, and a petition demanding Facebook require an opt-in from users before publishing their activity on external sites to their Facebook page quickly garnered over 50,000 signatures. It took until December for Facebook to implement the opt-out system fully.
This is beginning to seem like typical Facebook procedure: Enforcing intrusive new ways of working on its users, then facing a public backlash and having to retract and re-think. Well, today Facebook's completely backed away from Beacon--and chosen Nielsen to manage targeted advertising on the social network for "multiple years."
Advertising is obviously vital to Facebook, as it's the key revenue generator for the business--getting them right is absolutely critical for the future success of the social network service (as evidenced by Adam Penenberg's recent Q&A with Mark Zuckerberg). Hence the new BrandLift system with Nielsen is almost the inverse of the annoying Beacon approach. It's an opt-in procedure, whereby users vote on adverts which lets Facebook's team asses "user sentiment" by measuring "aided awareness, ad recall, message association, brand favorability and purchase consideration." Instantly that sounds like a much more cosy way of working out which ads will perform well without spying on your users--which is good news for Facebook users, and thus Facebook itself.
Nielsen's also doing nicely out of the deal. This is a partnership with one of the most influential and well-viewed sites on the web, and as far as anyone can tell there's no end-date to the deal that's been mentioned thus far. To put some figures onto this, Nielsen itself has just reported a whopping 566% increase in the average time per day spent by employees visiting Facebook over the period December 2007-2008--an amazing indication of how central to many people's lives Facebook is becomeing. BrandLift will also expand to websites in the future, assuming its test launch on Facebook with a small number of ad partners this week works out well.
Updated: At the official press conference to announce the partnership, Nielsen execs confirmed that privacy is absolutely built-in to the new ad system. While demographic-profile information is sent to Nielsen from its Facebook questionnaires (information like age and gender, and likes and dislikes as personally volunteered by respondants) no personally-identifying information is transmitted by the social networking site. The demographic info is, of course, absolutely key to Nielsen, who'll use it to find specific targets for advertising--perhaps aiming particular genres of movies at the right age group for example.