Facebook's face time at Davos

The social-networking site uses instant polling of members to generate buzz among the world's business and government elite.

Jon Skillings Editorial director
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
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Jon Skillings
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Story updated with Facebook response--see below.

Facebook seems to have turned some heads at the high-profile World Economic Forum with its real-time feedback and polling set-ups.

CNN reported from the Davos, Switzerland, gathering of government and business leaders that Facebook, along with YouTube and MySpace, brought social networking to new prominence in such elite company, from which it can often seem a generation gap away.

Facebook's Randi Zuckerberg was especially enthusiastic about the response, according to CNN.

"When you look at the audience you can really see this eureka moment in their eyes when they see 2,500 responses come in three minutes," she said. "It's been really interesting to see how Facebook users are guiding some of these discussions and the way that global leaders are now looking at this as a place for insight and to get a real time pulse."

Zuckerberg, Facebook's marketing director, was equally effusive in an interview with Britain's Sunday Telegraph. "Davos is really a key place to launch an instant tool like this," she told the newspaper.

"I had tons of people saying 'this could be so incredible for our business.' It takes a very long time to do a focus group, and businesses often don't have the luxury of time. I think they liked the instant responses," she said.

With the instant tool she's referring to, Facebook posed questions to some of its worldwide users and then within minutes presented responses to Davos delegates. For instance, the Telegraph said, Facebook polled users in both Palestine and Israel about global peace, and solicited responses from 120,000 U.S members about whether President Obama's stimulus package would save the U.S. economy.

The Telegraph story goes further, however, to claim that Facebook is poised to let multinational companies target specially selected subsets of its 150 million active members--based on "intimate details" such as marital status or sexual preference--to carry out product research.

That seems rather a stretch, however well the instant polling tool played in Davos. Facebook has been excoriated in the past by its users and its critics for what they see as invasions of privacy.

The Telegraph story may be reading too much into the Engagement Ads program that Facebook launched in August. As CNET News' Caroline McCarthy pointed out at the time:

What Facebook calls "engagement ads" won't be the magical cure, because it simply won't work for most advertisers. Rather, it's a niche option that will probably lead to very successful campaigns for some brands--and high-profile blunders for others.

Update Feb. 2, 10:02 a.m. PDT:
On Monday, Facebook offered this rebuttal to the Telegraph story:

The polls run at the World Economic Forum were not part of a commercially available product for advertisers and should not be confused with Facebook's Engagement Ads. At WEF, Facebook ran a series of polls to provide the Davos audience with real-time insight into the opinions of people outside of the conference. These polls were conducted on Facebook using internal tools.

Engagement Ads have been available since September and take five different forms. Most recently, Facebook began testing an Engagement Ad where advertisers can pose a question within the ad itself.

Facebook has, for many years, allowed the targeting of advertising in a non-personally identifiable way, based on profile attributes. Nothing has changed in our approach, and Facebook is committed, as always, to connecting users in a trusted environment.