Facebook’s About Face

The powers-that-be at Facebook deserve some credit for capitulating to the criticism of their Beacon marketing program. The activists at MoveOn diverted their attention from the political realm to expose the vagaries of opt-in and opt-out as it applied to this Facebook privacy-challenged monetization initiative.

Under the Beacon program, Facebook merchants had the ability to share news of their sales with the Facebooker’s friend feed. At first blush, it seemed like a reasonable way to extract added revenue from the social network’s growing number of marketing-minded merchants. Here’s the initial thinking from the Facebook news release:

“Beacon offers an interesting new way for us to deliver on our goal of bringing more bidders and buyers to our sellers’ listings,” said Gary Briggs, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, eBay North America. “In a marketplace where trust and reputation are crucial to success, giving sellers the ability to easily alert their network of friends – the people who already know and trust them – to an item for sale has the potential to be a powerful tool.”

On further inspection, however, we learned that Facebook automatically enrolled its booming community in the exploitive program unless members chose to physically opt out of it. This means that when you purchase a holiday gift, for example, the retailer could notify your virtual “friends” about your good taste.

“I saw my gf [girlfriend] bought an item I had been saying I wanted … so now part of my Christmas gift has been ruined. Facebook is ruining Christmas!”

This dynamic works quite well for music, as my friends at Amie Street have learned, but I’m surprised that Mr. Zuckerberg and company didn’t have the foresight to recognize the PR pitfalls in extending the model to all purchases. (Must be the marketers who’ve taken hold of the reins there.)

Anyway, they retreated…thanks to a growing chorus of online grousers. Beacon now requires opt-in. Nonetheless, some marketers are beginning to recognize Beacon’s downside. Will this misstep have greater consequences?

Updates on 12.4: