Facebook's Giant Marketing Mistake: It Works Backwards

Last Updated May 3, 2011 6:59 PM EDT

Facebook's daily deals are up and running, through from a marketing perspective, "limping" might be a better word. The company has already made a number of mistakes that are likely to numb its users to the very deals it's trying so hard to promote.

No surprise there. Facebook often -- and weirdly -- does exactly the opposite of what works for its advertisers. Its deals and ads force their way in front of users at every chance to make a sale, and, ironically, that renders them largely ineffective. Give it enough time and this ham-handed strategy will eventually undermine Facebook's entire business.

Hype, but no glory
With all the hype that Facebook received -- OK, that Facebook managed to pump through the WSJ -- this week, you might reasonably wonder how its marketing could possibly be going off the rails. Even if the company's cost-per-click prices have jumped 40 percent and it supposedly makes all this money, Facebook ad performance is abysmal.

There's no public data on Facebook's daily deals, but the approach it has taken in rolling them out doesn't look good:

  • Although you can opt in, apparently there's no opting out. Even if you didn't ask for daily deals, you're notified of them on the left side of your home page.
  • It doesn't matter whether you live in or near any of the cities that the daily deals support, you still get them, making the promotions even more useless. (Want to bet whether people are being sold on total impressions rather than the number of recipients in the same area as the business who are interested in getting deals?)
  • It seems to be a set of deals rather than one focused deal per day, the approach that has made Groupon the industry leader. Maybe those who sign up get a specific daily notification, but this is hardly a reason for managers of other deal sites to lose sleep.
  • The marketing itself is positively snooze-inducing. (An example: "How long have you and your friends talked about doing karaoke, only to find yourself back at that same old bar, club or theater for yet another Saturday night out? No more excuses." Zzzz ... huh?)
  • The deals link is to the side of the user home page, whether you want it or not. In short, Facebook is training its customers to ignore the feature.
None of this is petty -- it all goes to fundamental issues of marketing. Uninspiring creative aside, the biggest issue is Facebook's attempt to interest customers via blind -- read, "ineffective" -- associations. Maybe the assumed affiliation is location or a "like" endorsement by a connection on the social network. (A would-be class action suit targets Facebook for using the like endorsements of minors without permission of their parents.)

Graceless under pressure
Any company that supports itself with advertising has to jump in front of consumers to some degree. But Facebook is particularly graceless in its approach. Watch ads on the site. They suffer from reverse-keyword-searchitis. Google search advertising works because advertisers bid against the terms that people actually use in searches, which is a pretty clear sign that people are actively interested in the terms.

Because of reverse-keyword-searchitis, Facebook doesn't see what people are specifically interested in (other than general categories: "Why, yes, I like opera, so of course I wanted to consider a Glyndeborne vacation!"). Instead, Facebook -- and many other companies in the behavioral marketing realm -- work backwards. They look at words in a general context and then try to deduce what consumers want based on the use.

The advertising medium looks for "significant" words, or noun and verb combinations that supposedly indicate what the users want. All the approach does, though, is home in on something that may seem important, but may not be. For example, the other day I typed something into Facebook. A word I used in passing triggered two ads to suddenly appear. The hungry company literally hung on my every word, ready to launch an ad.

Coming off like a bad date
And that probably works sometimes. But often it doesn't, and instead gives off an almost palpable scent of desperation. It's the statistical and linguistic differences between causality and simultaneity. In normal speech, we quite frequently use words or discuss topics that don't have any particular personal significance. Facebook, however, grasps greedily at them, hoping that it can find enough material to pin an ad pitch on.

It's backwards marketing that pretends to more relevance than non-targeted advertising. In theory, it should have an edge over sheer chance. But Facebook and its advertising clients are leaning way too heavily on the automation. A computerized process can't overcome a lack of salesmanship the way Google search ads can.

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Image: morgueFile user Grafixar, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.