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Sandberg: Bring the personal touch to Facebook ads

Facebook's operations chief warns that users might banish traditional advertising the way they ignore annoying friends. Precise targeting means it doesn't have to be that way.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaking at Cannes Lions
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaking at Cannes Lions. Stephen Shankland/CNET

CANNES, France -- For Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, there's a lesson modern tech companies can learn from the way her grandfather sold paint in New York: The personal touch matters.

Speaking to advertising agencies gathered at the Cannes Lions conference here Wednesday, Sandberg argued that technology means mass marketing doesn't have to feel that way to the people seeing ads. If it does have that impersonal feel, advertisers run the risk of being brushed off the way Facebook users filter annoying friends' posts out of their newsfeeds.

"We're not at the point where every ad on Facebook is a delightful experience, and we want to get there," Sandberg said.

What she'd rather see is "personalized marketing at scale," she said, ads that combine advertiser creativity with technology to target ads to just the right audience.

Achieving that goal will mean more revenue for Facebook and more revenue for advertisers -- as long as users are content to continue granting them access to personal information. Privacy advocates have objected to the approach, arguing that Facebook in effect turns users' personal details into a product sold to advertisers. That means the company has an interest in intrusiveness that's fundamentally at odds with people's privacy.

So far, Facebook and other ad-supported sites are winning the argument over the privacy advocates: 63 percent of Facebook's nearly 1.3 billion members visit the site daily, Sandberg said.

The key to allaying users' privacy concerns is "transparency and control," she said. "What matters is people understand how their data is being used and they have control over it."

Facebook, though, has some black marks on its privacy record. Its most notorious move was to publish posts publicly by default, a tactic the company since has reversed.

Personalized ads done right

One example of the personalized mass-market advertising is Coca-Cola's ad in which people from different demographic groups sang "America the Beautiful," Sandberg said. The ad was chopped into segments with various demographics and shown in shorter versions over Facebook. "It felt both global and very personal," she said.

Another example, from Budweiser, involved videos in which musicians were interviewed about their songs. "We targeted those ads to people based on their musical taste. When I got that in my news feed, I felt like, 'That's what I know, that's what I like,'" Sandberg said.

Smartphones will further the personalized ad trend, she added.

"It's almost so obvious it's a cliche, but mobile is big. It's bigger than we thought or we predicted," she said. "We systematically underestimated the transition to mobile."

Advertisers are behind the curve, too, she said. "Mobile is 20 percent of people's time but only 4 percent of [advertisers'] budget.

HTML5 misstep and a 30-year-old boss

Facebook itself had a hard time because its first mobile products were built on Web standards such as HTML5 that used browser software for display and interaction.

"We had to go back and rebuild all our apps to be native apps on iOS and Android and all the other platforms. That was a hard process for us," Sandberg said.

Sandberg is more than a decade older than Chief Executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg. He's matured in the six years they've worked together, she said.

"Mark has changed a lot. He was 23 when I started. He just turned 30. He didn't have a party -- I had a party," she said, drawing laughter from the audience. "I posted internally: 'Thank god my boss is 30!' I handed out cupcakes. I wore a hat and everything."

Since then, Zuckerberg has "grown a lot, and grown a lot on a public stage," she said.

"People did originally underestimate him, mostly because he's shy so he's not the most talkative person," Sandberg said. "He's one of the best listeners in the world. At his core, he's an optimist, and he believes in the power of individuals."