So much for social networks embracing wholly new and revolutionary modes of native advertising and non-intrusive ads triggered by social signals alone. Twitter announced on July 3 that it would begin at least one ad program that does things the old-fashioned way: simple retargeting. At the company blog, Senior Director of Product Revenue Kevin Weil explained that advertisers will soon be able to pass on to Twitter a cookie ID or hashed email they have captured from users’ browsing or registration history elsewhere on the Web to serve them Promoted Tweets in their feeds. “Users won’t see more ads on Twitter, but they may see better ones.”
Twitter is following Facebook into this area. That social network started letting retargeted ads into its Newsfeed via the Facebook Exchange earlier this year.
Twitter includes in its announcement a statement on privacy. “Simply uncheck the box next to ‘Promoted content’ in your account settings, and Twitter will not match your account to information shared by our ad partners for tailoring ads,” writes Weil. “This is the only place you’ll need to disable this feature on Twitter.” He also states that Twitter supports Do Not Track and so will not take information from advertisers about people who have set the DNT flag on their browser.
Twitter told the Wall Street Journal that the company is moving slowly into the retargeting model, testing it first in the U.S. market. The new model also does not preempt or preclude the other more native and socially informed ad products Twitter offers.
Yeah, well, maybe. A couple of things. First, I don’t quite get why these social networks announce such fundamental changes to the nature and quality of their main feeds in a blog post that is apart from the feed itself. Remember when Instagram caused a firestorm late last year when its new policies seemed at first to hand rights to user-made photos to ad partners? Unless Instagram users were monitoring the tech press, they would have had to root around an online blog that most of the app’s users probably didn’t know existed.
The larger point, of course, is whether Facebook and now Twitter are undermining their own early and fundamental arguments that social signals were superior targeting sources that resulted in ads that felt more like content. Weil tells the Journal that the combination of social and retargeting methods may at times result in more “useful” ads. Yeah, well, when the comparative metrics roll in, we'll see which technique proves more effective. For all of its simplicity, basic retargeting has endured as a lynchpin of behavioral advertising because it works. There is nothing especially subtle about seeing ads show up in your general browsing that reflect earlier visits (even showing you items you were browsing), but they capture your attention through familiarity as much as relevance.
The unanswered question is whether people regard their social news feeds differently from their general browsing. The flip side of retargeting is that uses are likely more aware of what is going on: their online behaviors are being tracked. I refrain from using “creepy” anymore in describing this, because I'm not so sure it can apply to simple online targeting in an age of NSA snooping and increased digital sophistication. As we outlined here weeks ago, Americans suffer few illusions about the level of governmental and industrial tracking that goes on.
The question is context. Do people regard their social media feeds as more personal, private sanctuaries from the larger flow of digital information? Or are these feeds, as Facebook and Twitter likely want us to believe, the new interface for digital access? Granted Twitter and Facebook are somewhat different animals. Twitter is a broadcasting medium that does not promise intimacy. Posts are public. Still, the highly customized quality of “follows” and the attachment of many feeds to personalities does give this a different feel from an RSS feed. Facebook is perhaps more in danger of losing its “social” intimacy, since its garden walls feel higher around self-selected “friends,” faux or otherwise.
Or is this just an inevitable “maturation” of social media? After years of pronouncements prioritizing user experience, eschewing traditional ad formats and techniques, and touting social signals as a more organic and accurate way to identify intent and interest, do Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter have to shed the dorm-room idealism and make a living?