Facebook News Feed ads aren’t always clear who’s paying for them

ads logoWith advertisers and users now able to pay to promote posts in News Feed, Facebook has created a situation where it’s not always clear who is paying for the placement.

The social network marks all ads, whether they were sponsored by a brand or promoted by an individual user, with the word “Sponsored.” The problem is there are some ad types that could be paid for by brands or users, but there’s no way to know which one bought the ad by looking at it.

Take the following ad for example:

domain sponsored story

This could have been promoted by the user as a way to get more friends to join her in the event. It could have been sponsored by LivingSocial as a way to get more people to check out the deal. Or it could have been paid for by Tough Mudder, the event organizer. When users see the “Sponsored” label, especially if they’re unfamiliar with the details of Facebook advertising, they might have different assumptions about who’s paying for it, which could affect their perceptions of the ad or the user involved.

Most likely, this is what is called a “Domain Sponsored Story.” Companies can pay to promote a user’s post to their friends if it includes a link to their domain. Domain Sponsored Stories, however, do not include any logo or additional content from the advertiser, whereas Sponsored Stories about users Liking a page or Liking a post do. This can make it seem as though the ad is coming from the user themselves.

Even Facebook employees have been fooled by the format, as seen in this exchange on a post by the social network’s director of engineering that was turned into a Domain Sponsored Story by PageLever a few months ago.

boz domain sponsored story

One employee suggested that the advertiser should be revealed when users mouse over the “Sponsored” label. The feature would help provide more transparency, but so far we haven’t seen Facebook implement this.

Sponsored Stories are powerful advertisements because they allow advertisers to promote users’ organic activity, whether its Liking a page, interacting with a post, sharing a link, checking into a place or taking an Open Graph action. But since any advertiser can promote any of these user actions through the API — even if they don’t manage the page, app or domain involved — and because users now have options to push their posts to the tops of friends’ feeds, Facebook should consider ways to make the ads more transparent. As more Sponsored Stories and Promoted Posts appear in News Feed, users should be able to identify who is paying to put them there.