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Facebook: We still believe in the social ad

The controversy over Facebook's Beacon advertising service hasn't turned the company off the idea of a system in which users share information about the products and services they consume.

Brett Winterford
Brett writes regular technology articles for ZDNet and CNET Australia among others, as well as music stories for the Sydney Morning Herald. He was formerly a technology and business contributor for the Australian Financial Review, IDG and just about every tech magazine under the Aussie sun. He lives in Sydney, Australia with his Yamaha CP70, his Fender Rhodes and his classic Gibson hollow-body - gadgets from an entirely different era altogether.
Brett Winterford
3 min read

Little over a month since Facebook's Beacon advertising service came under fire over privacy concerns, the company's chief revenue officer has said that the "social ad" will remain a key focus for the social-networking site.

Owen Van Natta, chief revenue officer at Facebook, told an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show that most Facebook users are comfortable with sharing information about the products and services they consume.

Facebook's Beacon is an advertising service which posts messages on users' Facebook profiles about any purchases they make on Facebook-affiliated e-commerce sites. These social ads expose to other users such information as what movies their friend has watched, what music they have consumed, or what brand of clothes they prefer.

The premise of Beacon is that friends and other people who are intimately connected to a user are more likely to influence a purchasing decision than any other form of advertising.

The service came under fire late last year when it was discovered that users had little control over the release of information pertaining to their purchasing decisions. After a period of intense media scrutiny, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg responded with an apology and offered an option which allows Facebook users to opt out of the Beacon service altogether.

But Van Natta says it was the press and other privacy advocates, and not users, which forced the apology upon the company.

"One of the reasons it took us so long (for us) to respond was because it wasn't really a user thing as much as it was the press and the folks who are trying to highlight it and make it important to people," he said.

Van Natta said that only a "small single digit percentage" of Facebook users have since taken the remedial step of a total opt-out from Beacon. And not a single advertiser pulled out of the project when the privacy concerns were exposed.

In fact, the company plans to "open up" the Beacon service beyond the first 60 companies it began with, and will eventually make it "self-service."

Facebook users, he said, are predominantly young people who have grown up in an age where they are used to their information being shared on the Internet.

"We built Beacon because when you look at people's profiles, they are already doing things to share this kind of information; there is just the friction of having to enter it all in manually," he said.

As more and more content floods the Web, Van Natta believes that a greater emphasis will be placed on the "credibility of identity and content."

"Amazon.com reviews have become far more useful since posters have had to provide their name and since users have been able to vote on whether the review is useful," he said.

"Every day I hear radio ads for restaurants, but they rarely convince me to go eat at that restaurant. A friend, on the other hand, a person who actually knows me and knows my taste, can cause me to take action. The lens through which (the recommendation) is provided is the big difference," he said.

"We think people will want to expand what they are doing with Facebook," he said. "We just have to get the product right so that there's a comfort level and people don't think their privacy is being invaded. If you don't give people that comfort they won't share that information and usage won't happen."