Facebook has already helped us turn our estranged middle-school classmates into our "friends." Now it hopes to make Walmart, Coca-Cola and other corporations our buddies, too.
The social networking site wants its ads to be friendlier -- not more helpful, bigger, or even more relevant, as Google attempts to do, but more personable. And it is staking its fiscal future on brands' ability to do so.
Facebook has always touted itself as a place for firms to converse with their customers. On Facebook, the site's story goes, companies can post, listen, and respond to consumers rather than broadcasting from the distance of a billboard or a prime-time ad spot. It's more intimate and more personal, Facebook execs say.
But Facebook has pushed this pitch into overdrive as it attempts to woo advertising dollars ahead of its highly-anticipated IPO and distinguish itself from web rivals lusting after the same ad budgets. The social network's familiar refrain about the value of conversing with customers online has also taken on new weight as it has tied companies' Facebook posts to its profits. Facebook announced Wednesday that its new "premium" ads will feature content from brands' status updates, photos and other posts in place of more traditional promotions displaying a logo or slogan.
Helping companies become human and insert themselves into our social circles has become a strategic priority for Facebook. And to do so, according to Facebook's guidelines, brands must behave like teenage boys trying to woo a love interest: They have to prod us, ask us questions, memorize our interests, and convince our friends to put in a good word. The goal is to help brands slyly slip into the stream by masking firms as friends.
"We ask ourselves, 'What would the world be like with genuine personal relationships with our government, with celebrities, with the brand that help me express who I am?'" Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said during her keynote at the site's first-ever Facebook Marketing Conference earlier this week.
To make full use of Facebook, brands must behave more like people, Sandberg said.
"Today the very same principles apply to people as to brands: You have an identity, use it. You have a voice, express yourself. Your customers are listening and your customers are talking, so engage them," she said.
At its marketing event, the company flaunted an entirely new vocabulary that attempts to recast advertising as friendly updates, rather than efforts to sell things. On Facebook, "ads" have become "stories," and every interaction offers the potential for a "relationship." That's a stark contrast with the way Google discusses advertising. For the search giant, ads are still ads, and customers are customers, not acquaintances.
"We're evolving from ads to stories," Mike Hoefflinger, Facebook's director of global business marketing, said at the conference. "Lots of ads can add up to noise. Lots of stories are actually the basis of our relationships. ... We all want to tell stories, but the reason that we've been doing ads is simply because we couldn't build enough connections to operate and tell stories at the scale that modern business demands."
Before an audience of hundreds, Facebook executives highlighted several brands that it considered to be shining examples of how brands could befriend users, all while pushing their products. On Ben & Jerry's Facebook page, which was spotlighted during the conference, updates alternate between commands and questions. "Spread the word, free Cone Day is April 3rd!" reads one post. Another instructs "Guess which flavor...", followed by a snapshot of a scoop of ice cream, and yet another, "Post your favorite Ben & Jerry's pics to our page and yours just may be featured next week!" Of the ice cream company's 3.7 million fans, between 1,300 and 3,000 people answered each post with a "like" or a comment.
Facebook's point: Via the social network, brands could get users to actually enjoy advertising by recasting their messages from a pitch to pure palling around.
What does all this mean for users? Say "so long" to ads that must be purely tolerated. This new genre of ad -- or "story" -- demands to be liked, acknowledged and answered. Marketers that heed Facebook's push are likely to pepper potential customers with questions, to ask them for things, to get their feedback -- all in the guise of being a friend, not a multinational corporation.
But are users really ready to count brands among their BFFs? Millions of people have opted in to receive updates from companies ranging from Coca-Cola to Chanel, so perhaps many will be receptive to the more personal push.
At the same time, it risks diluting some of the appeal of Facebook, and moving it further away from its connection to our real-world friends and our true acquaintances.
"The goal we went into it [Facebook] with wasn't to make an online community, but a mirror for the offline community that existed in real life," said Mark Zuckerberg in a 2005 interview.
Offline, we buy brands -- we don't befriend them.
Follow Bianca Bosker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bbosker