When Social Ads Backfire

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The goal of social advertising is to amplify positive word-of-mouth. Ads show that your friend mentioned a company, checked in to a business, or that thousands have +1′d an ad, and you’re more likely to believe the brand’s message and become a customer. But when brands pay to distribute user-generated content, there’s a chance for an epic fail of promoting negative word-of-mouth. Unlike fire-and-forget traditional ads, social ads must be monitored.

[Update: This poll is a limited audience research poll conducted by Facebook in partnership with Nielsen, and it was not an ad buy from Warner Bros. I've made significant edits to this article to reflect this, but the principle holds true that while social ads can be a powerful tool for brands, they need to be monitored or filtered through sentiment analysis engines to ensure they're promoting positive mentions.]

Facebook used this home page Research Poll to ask users if they planned to go see Happy Feet 2. This information could help it determine what demographics might be receptive to family film ads. However, 41% of respondents said they “Definitely won’t” go see Happy Feet 2, and though the poll only reached a limited audience, it was giving off a poor impression of the film. With the results skewing so negative, it may have been best for Facebook to pull the poll.

Facebook offers premium social polls and Sponsored Stories that allow brands to pay to ask users questions or convert user-authored news feed stories into side bar ads. Similar issues could arise with these ad units, where poll results are negative or insults to a brand are amplified. If Advertising channels like Facebook want these units to catch on with advertisers, they have to ensure them that automated systems will detect social ad fails, and pause the campaigns for review automatically. Advertisers should also keep a close eye on their social campaigns and intervene when necessary.

Third-parties ads tech providers are stepping up to prevent fiascos. Wildfire Interactive’s Storyteller app for Facebook Pages asks users questions and turns their answers into Sponsored Stories ads, but responses are run through sentiment analysis and negative responses get filtered out.

Social context has the potential to make advertising a lot more relevant, producing more qualified clicks at a lower cost. But brands can also fall on this double-edged sword if not protected by sentiment analysis or human monitors.