This post, by Farhad Manjoo, originally appeared on Slate on 3/20/13. While it focuses on consumer products like detergent, authors who use, or are considering, Facebook ads should read it.
Even if you never click on Facebook ads, they are making you buy things.
This is a story about advertising on the Web. Specifically, it’s about ads on Facebook, a hugely popular free service that’s supported solely through advertising, yet is packed with users who are actively hostile to the idea of being marketed to on their cherished social network. Considering all of this, the best place to start is with your primary concern about Web ads. This is what I hear from readers every time I write about the online ad economy, especially ads on Facebook: “I don’t know how Facebook will ever make any money—I never click on Web ads!”
And that’s not all. You’ve checked with your friends and relatives. No one you know has ever intentionally clicked on a Web ad. OK, once, years ago, a co-worker told you about a guy who knows a guy who tapped an ad on his phone. True story! But don’t worry. People close to the situation dismissed it as a one-time deal. The guy wasn’t trying to tap the ad; he just had really fat fingers. He felt really bad about it afterward, too.
So, the question persists: How does Facebook expect to become a huge business if most people you know never click on ads?
The answer is surprisingly obvious. It’s a fact well-known to advertisers, though it’s not always appreciated by people who use Facebook or even by folks in the Web ad business: Clicks don’t matter. Whether you know it or not—even if you consider yourself skeptical of marketing—the ads you see on Facebook are working. Sponsored messages in your feed are changing your behavior—they’re getting you and your friends to buy certain products instead of others, and that’s happening despite the fact that you’re not clicking, and even if you think you’re ignoring the ads.
This isn’t conjecture. It’s science. It’s based on a remarkable set of in-depth studies that Facebook has conducted to show whether and how its users respond to ads on the site.