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.