Bebo are overhauling their advertising model in order to let its users choose what types of ads they see. The idea has caused quite a stir in the press and publishing community.

Is this idea misguided? Or is this the future of advertising? 

On the face it, as interruption marketing and advertising is on the wane, and permission marketing is the way forwards, it seems to make sense to allow users to self-target the ads they are exposed to.

Justin Pearse, Deputy Editor of NMA, commented in his editorial leader following Bebo’s announcement that “People really don’t mind advertising. They just want far more choice in how they receive it.”

To me Bebo’s thinking and plans are, in many ways, to be applauded and I wish them best luck. However, there are a number of reasons why I’m sceptical about this approach working, both for Bebo and its users and advertisers:

1. Do users really not mind advertising (as Justin Pearse claims)?

Given the choice of advertising (however well targeted) or no advertising, would you choose advertising? I would have thought that most users would see advertising as a necessary evil to support their free tools / content / services.

Brands (and the likes of Bebo) are talking about creating advertising in the form of content, services, functionality etc. that are so good, and so useful and relevant, that users will be quite happy to immerse themselves in it. I think the jury is still out on whether advertisers are actually able to do this and whether the users will not cyncically take what they can get but give nothing back to the brand.

2. How many users will choose toilet roll ads and mortgage ads?
If you look at a lot of the big advertising spenders they have to use mass reach, interruptive, advertising because they need scale and they’re selling things that just aren’t that interesting in themselves.

When users are asked about what ads they want to see, are they really going to choose the areas where a lot of the advertising dollars are spent? Or are they all going to be interested in entertainment, leisure, fashion and so on?

3. How many users will actually make the effort to tailor their ads?
Will Bebo and the like force users to choose ads or will it be optional? If they force users to choose ads then how likely is it that users will tell the truth about what they’re interested in? If optional, what % of the users will actually bother to self-target? For most sites the % of people who actively personalise their experience is still surprisingly low (single digit).

4. Will users keep their profile / interests up to date?
I think this is actually the biggest challenge. Capturing data is one thing, but keeping it up to date, or expecting the user to do so, is quite another. It’s really a very big challenge.

A lot of ‘traditional’ marketing is about targeting changes in customers’ circumstances, or lifestages, e.g. moving house, having children, changing job etc. For Bebo’s idea to work the users will have to update their self-targeting profiles as they go through these stages. Will they bother to do this? If they don’t then the data will age very quickly and the ads will soon become less relevant again. Advertisers risk then being charged a premium for targeting that is inaccurate.

5. Will the ads be better than search?
Assuming the point of self-targeting ads from a user perspective is to get relevant offers put before you, wouldn’t it be easier to just search for what you want? If you actually want or need something then it would be much easier just to look for it rather than hope the ads came up with something?

So I assume the ads will be more about brand awareness? More about exposing users to brands or experiences they DIDN’T know about or hadn’t considered but which might be relevant? More about opening their eyes to wanting something they didn’t even realise they wanted…?

What do you think?

Ashley Friedlein