Facebook Lets Advertisers Eavesdrop on Your Conversations

03/17/2015 02:11 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015

Between the granting of its social media influencer patent just a few weeks ago, and now the availability of a new insight tool, it's clear that Facebook has its financial compass pointed towards advertisers. The new tool, known as Topic Data, is Facebook's deepest venture thus far into allowing outsider access into its treasure trove of data. Topic Data is sure to entice advertisers as it essentially gives them the ability to be a fly on the wall listening in on people's conversations. Perhaps they should be careful though - as the popular idiom goes, "eavesdroppers never hear anything good about themselves."

According to Facebook, Topic Data is designed to show marketers exactly what Facebook users are saying about events, brands, subjects, and activities, while still keeping their personal information private. Marketers will then be able to use that information to make better informed advertising decisions. To provide that material, Facebook has teamed up with DataSift, a leading brand analytics company.

Topic Data is not designed to allow brands to see every mention of their business. Brands will be able to submit inquiries about what's being shared, opinions on the brand, trends, etc. via a third-party analytics provider. Once DataSift receives the inquiries it will run them against Facebook's data and deliver anonymized statistical data about posts that match the company's inquiries. Any queries that require personal information about users, such as addresses, will be banned.

Facebook cites three specific examples of the kind of detailed information advertisers can attain through Topic Data:
• "A business selling a hair de-frizzing product can see demographics on the people talking about humidity's effects on their hair to better understand their target audience.
• A fashion retailer can see the clothing items its target audience is talking about to decide which products to stock.
• A brand can see how people are talking about their brand or industry to measure brand sentiment."

Not only could a brand monitor demographics of the people who are discussing hair-frizz problems, but it could also monitor when they are talking about it. Brands would then, on days when frizzy hair is a popular topic of conversation, be able to strategically step up their ad spending to reach users involved in the discussion. Sentiment, number of mentions, location and words frequently mentioned alongside a brand will also be accessible.

This feature may be advantageous for businesses, but how well will it go over with Facebook users? Imagine you were a user posting some innocuous comment about the difficulty of dealing with frizzy hair in the summertime, and then all of a sudden you started seeing advertisements for hair-care products. Wouldn't you feel like you, and your content, were being monitored? On one hand users could find the advertisement convenient, as it may be a solution to their problem, but on the other hand they could find it just plain creepy.

If they do find it creepy, unfortunately their only option is to stop posting, or to only post to themselves - meaning set the post's visibility status to private. Facebook seems to want as much data as possible and will not be giving users an option to opt out of being part of Topic Data.

Twitter has already seen a great deal of success with its brand analytics, and it still has plenty of users. However Twitter's tweets are public, whereas Facebook posts are usually not, so Facebook users may have different expectations when it comes to privacy. While the company is not allowing users to opt out, it is taking significant steps to protect their privacy. Facebook has vowed that it will not disclose anyone's personal information, and that all of the results provided through Topic Data will be aggregated and anonymized. The only catch seems to be that Facebook knows who you are and will be able to target you directly on behalf of companies - meaning many users may suddenly start seeing advertisements geared towards subjects they are talking about.

Concerns for its users are not stopping Facebook from unlocking its potentially lucrative treasure trove of data. In fact, Facebook is so interested in allowing access to its data that it has prioritized access above profit. The company has given DataSift the keys to its kingdom of information free of charge- suggesting that Facebook is currently more interested in catching-up to the likes of Twitter than in cashing in on its own goldmine.

At this point Topic Data is only available in the United States and the United Kingdom, but global expansion is planned. This tool marks a significant leap forward for Facebook who usually trails Twitter when it comes to monetizing data for business purposes, due to user privacy concerns. Has Facebook finally found the right balance between privacy and useful data to make Topic Data work? Only time will tell, but in any case advertisers are probably smiling, and Facebook is sure to make money - eventually.

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