Leaky Algorithmic Marketing Efforts or Why Social Advertising Sucks

A couple of days ago, the estimable JP Rangaswami posted a piece in response to a rather weird ad he saw pop up on Facebook. You should go read the full post for the context, but here’s the really quick version.

JP had posted a quick Facebook comment about reading some very entertainingly snarky Amazon.com reviews for absurdly over-priced speaker cables.

Something lurking deep in the dark heart of the giant, steam-belching, Heath Robinson contraption that powers Facebook’s social advertising engine took a shine to JP’s drive-by comment, snarfled it up, and spat it back out again with an advert attached. A rather… odd choice of “ad inventory unit”, to say the least. Here’s how it showed up on on of JP’s friends’ Facebook news feeds:

I saw JP post about this on Facebook and commented. The more I thought about the weirdness of this, the longer my comment became – to the point where I figured it deserved to spill over into a full-blown blog rant. Strap in… you have been warned.

I’ve seen a lot of this kind of thing happening in the past several months. Recently I’ve been tweeting and Facebooking my frustration with social sharing apps that behave in similar ways. You know the kind of thing – those ridiculous cluewalls implemented by Yahoo!, SocialCam, Viddy, and several big newspapers. You see an interesting link posted by one of your friends, click to read the article, and next thing you know you’re expected to grant permission to some rotten app to start spamming all your friends every time you read something online. Ack.

The brilliant Matthew Inman, genius behind The Oatmeal, had a very smart, beautifully simple take on all this social reader stupidity.

It’s the spread of this kind of leaky algorithmic marketing that is starting to really discourage me from sharing or, sometimes, even consuming content. And I’m a sharer by nature – I’ve been willingly sharing and participating in all this social bollocks for a heck of a long time now.

But now… well, I’m really starting to worry about the path we seem to be headed down. Or should I say, the path we’re being led down.

Apps that want me to hand over the keys to my FB account before I can read the news or watch another dopey cat video just make me uncomfortable. If I inadvertently click through an interesting link only to find that SocialCam or Viddy or somesuch malarkey wants me to accept its one-sided Terms of Service, then I nope the hell out of there pretty darn fast.

How can this be good for the Web? It denies content creators of traffic and views, and ensures that I *won’t* engage with their ideas, no matter how good they might be.

All these examples are bad cases of Leaky Algorithmic Marketing Efforts (or L.A.M.E. for short). It’s a case of developers trying to be smart in applying their algorithms to user-generated content – attempting to nail the sweet spot of personal recommendations by guessing what kind of ad inventory to attach to an individual comment, status update, or tweet.

It results in unsubtle, bloody-minded marketing leaking across into personal conversations. Kinda like the loud, drunken sales rep at the cocktail party, shoe-horning a pitch for education savings plans into a discussion about your choice of school for your kids.

Perhaps I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t so awfully bloody cack-handed as a marketing tactic. I mean – take another look at the ad unit served up to run alongside JP’s status update. What the hell has an ad for motorbike holidays got to do with him linking to snarky reviews of fancyass (and possibly fictional) speaker cables? Where’s the contextual connection?

Mr. Marketer: your algorithm is bad, and you should feel bad.

The growing prevalence of weirdness like this has been slowly nudging me in the direction of Internet recluse of late, and providing all kinds of juicy source material for a talk I’m giving at the upcoming mesh conference in a couple of weeks. I’m going to build on the theme of my Social Media WTF post from a few weeks ago.

I’ve always been very comfortable about sharing who I am and what I like online. But now I increasingly feel I want to hide behind proxies just to read an online newspaper – not just because I’m upset that marketers are trying to harvest meaning from every pixel I poke, but also because they’re just so woefully, pathetically bad at it.

My friend Jon Husband let me know earlier today that he saw a Facebook ad saying “Michael O’Connor Clarke likes Aleve”. Well, yes – I suppose I do. It’s an effective muscle relaxant and pain reliever and helped a lot with a rather badly sprained ankle a few years ago. But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to shill for the damn thing.

When Jon told me about this, it immediately set me stomping off in high dudgeon to check my Facebook privacy settings. Here’s what I found:

“Facebook does not give third party applications or advert networks the right to use your name or picture in adverts…”

Ah ha! I thought. Got you, you duplicitous, praetorian, algorithmic bastards (sorry, “algorithmic” seems to be word of the day here, for some reason). But then I read on…

“Everyone wants to know what their friends like. That’s why we pair adverts and friends — an easy way to find products and services you’re interested in, based on what your friends share and like.

Here are the facts:
– Social adverts show an advertiser’s message alongside actions you have taken, such as liking a Page”

Ay, there’s the rub.

Perhaps it’s just me, but the delta between “we don’t do this” and “we do this in certain circumstances that suit us, subject to change without notice at any time in the future, if we feel like it” is almost too fine to be discernible.

So Facebook doesn’t give others the right to use my name for advertising third-party products, but they’ve absolutely no qualms about doing precisely that themselves.

A little higher up on my Facebook news feed the other day was a link telling me a very straight-laced management consultant I know watched a saucy video called “Hot contestant on Wheel of Fortune”. I wonder if he even realises SocialCam is promoting this fact?

Frankly, I couldn’t care less what the dude watches. But I worry that our every online action, every click, every gesture, every page to which I choose to offer eyeballs seems to be considered fair game for the crappiest kind of marketing.

This is not the intention economy I signed up for.

I should know better, of course. I fully understand the basic precept: if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. I get that.

But in these examples I’m not even the product being sold – I’m the unpaid and unwitting salesman for someone else’s product, and that chafes my social bumpy bits.

One thought on “Leaky Algorithmic Marketing Efforts or Why Social Advertising Sucks

  1. Agreed. Over faith in social networking advertising model is sowing its own collapse. The algorithms should be smarter to pin-point my personal intention and not have to leak a scatter-shot of privacy. Mark Zuckerberg is smart enough to get a grip and fix this, most product designers are not as smart.

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