Facebook is at a pivotal crossroads. Ever since its stock market flotation, the social giant has had a tough problem to address: how can it become profitable without alienating its user base?
Myspace couldn't manage it (sorry Justin, no amount of cool re-branding is gonna bring that sexy back) and the jury's still out on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Part of Facebook's solution so far has been to give more options and screen-space to advertisers. Clearly though, this hasn't worked out as planned as despite emphasising the power of 'socially-targeted' ads leading up to its flotation, the site will now also be using the same 'cookie-based' ads as seen on every other site on the web.
On top of that, the recently announced changes to the site (Graph Search, News Feed Redesign) and new products ('Home' and the HTC First 'Facebook Phone') are intended to make things better and easier for the ad men, and at the same time be geared towards giving the user more choice in what he/she sees and how.
The question is will those changes help increase the time spent on the site amongst its core users? Or will the perpetually increasing number and size of ads put them off, regardless of how and when they choose to see them?
There are a growing number of groups springing up on Facebook itself, created to protest against what the members see as an influx of ads; especially those that appear directly in their news feeds.
My company Silicon Beach Training has experienced a member of one of the larger of these groups'... let's say 'displeasure' with Facebook ads first-hand, after we ran a campaign to promote one of our popular blog posts.
In response to this, we decided to suspend our campaign in order to judge whether or not it was worth our investment. With that goal in mind, we created a small survey.
We asked 50 people from a variety of backgrounds, including some members of the anti-ads groups, a series of questions intended to give us a basic idea of what real users felt about Facebook ads.
Obviously, this is by no means a comprehensive survey (50 out of 1 billion?) but the varied profiles of people we asked means that we could at least get an initial indication as to what we were working with.
Surveying the Scene
So to begin with, we wanted to know what people thought about ads generally.
We asked "Does advertising interfere with your Facebook experience?" These were the results:
An amazing 82% of respondents said that ads did interfere with their experience on the site, at least sometimes. That's a significant number of people who are against the very thing that is supposed to make Facebook profitable.
We then asked which ads did they feel interfere the most?
According to our survey, it's the news feed ads which annoy people the most.
Now, one major part of the news feed redesign is a greater emphasis on images and posts i.e. they're much bigger! (see below)
Based on our research, users already don't like how invasive ads are, so are they really going to like them more when they're even bigger and more invasive?
Um... no, probably not.
The implication here is that ads will appear amongst friends' snaps of babies and rants about the service at Costa as they do now, but there will be multiple feeds for different types of posts rather than just the one.
It seems pretty unlikely that users will be able to choose to 'switch off' ads by selecting say the 'Friends Only' stream. More likely is that ads will still pop up all over the shop, but may now be segmented into appropriate feeds. So for example, an image based-ad will still appear in the 'Photos' feed but won't appear in the 'Music' feed.
Of the people we asked, nearly 70% said they preferred targeted ads to untargeted ones. Does this mean that if ads start appearing in the right places (image-based ones in the 'Photos' feed, video-based in the 'Video' feed etc) they'd be more responsive to them?
The bigger and more intrusive the ads are, the less users will see the targeted placement of them as a positive. And with the release of Facebook 'Home' comes new questions about how willing users will be to be immersed in a platform that is constantly pushing ads on them 24/7 (as inevitably 'Home' will).
Now let's put this in perspective: the top bods at the biggest social network of all time are not going to be too fussed about a few users who don't like ads.
However, they do need to remember that Facebook's core product is its user-base: if they go, the advertisers and investors will go with them.
Mark Zuckerberg once said: "The thing that we are trying to do at Facebook, is just help people connect and communicate more efficiently."
This is his biggest test yet in trying to stick to that principle.