Facebook Targeting on Profile Data: Is Interest a Proxy for Purchase Intent?

The Wall Street Journal today discusses Facebook’s plans to target ads on user profile data, but according to what VP of Sales Mike Murphy told ClickZ during a Q&A last month, the company is already doing some of that:

“Our users are updating their profile on average every 48 hours,” he said. “While most sites rely on either demographic targeting or behavioral targeting, in our case our users are giving us those 200 words that are most meaningful to them every day, we’re targeting against that.”

According to the WSJ story, the “system” Facebook is planning to release this fall adds a back-end keyword buying system to its recent profile-based targeting offering. The article makes some rather breathless comparisons to Google’s AdWords system, even going so far as to invoke that magic word “algorithm,” a mantra in this age of machine-driven advertising.

Next year, Facebook hopes to expand on the service, one person says, using algorithms to learn how receptive a person might be to an ad based on readily available information about activities and interests of not just a user but also his friends — even if the user hasn’t explicitly expressed interest in a given topic.

Trust the borg? Not so fast. The appearance of “movies” and “surfing” in a social net user’s list of interests doesn’t necessarily imply a willingness to buy the DVD version of “Surf’s Up” — much less a willingness of her friends to do so. Put differently, interest has not been proven to be a proxy for purchase intent. What Facebook, and MySpace too, are pursuing is still just a slightly more evolved form of contextual advertising.

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