Pretty much everyone in the audience at Sheryl Sandberg's talk on Tuesday morning as part of New York Advertising Week understood the meaning of the slide she displayed that read "Nielsen and Facebook are in a relationship." A nod to announcements on Facebook's homepage "news feed," the "in a relationship" phrase is now a recognizable slice of Internet culture--much as social network Facebook itself has become ubiquitous.
And Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, hopes it will be just as ubiquitous in the advertising world. Her goal on Tuesday was to formally announce the social network's "strategic alliance" with data and audience measurement firm Nielsen, starting with the launch of a product called BrandLift, a market research tool that can measure audience response to advertisements on Facebook "in a matter of days."
Nielsen Online CEO John Burbank joined Sandberg on stage to detail the basics of BrandLift. "We recognize just how increasingly important Facebook is within the whole ecosystem of media," he said, adding that it would be "crucial in building (marketers') confidence in using the Internet as a tool."
Burbank confirmed what he told CNET News last night, that BrandLift measurement would eventually reach beyond the hugely popular social network. "(Brands) have asked us to extend this tool beyond Facebook," he said. "Working with Facebook, we expect to do that, too."
But for now, it's all about the social network. Sandberg pitched Facebook to the ad industry audience, as she has done in the past, as a hub for meaningful connections and communication. "Facebook is where people go when they want to share, when they want to connect, when they want to reach out to the people they know," Sandberg said, and she brought up instances as varied as grassroots activism in Iran and the two girls in Australia who updated their Facebook status messages rather than calling emergency services when they were trapped in a storm drain.
"I thank them, and we're glad, we're especially glad they got rescued," Sandberg said, noting that the girls' choice of crisis communication highlighted just how important Facebook is to personal connections in members' lives. "(But) next time you use emergency services, 911. Better option for sure."
What she also talked about: How fast Facebook has been growing. Last year at Advertising Week, she said, she announced that the social network recently had hit 100 million active users. This month, Facebook hit 300 million. And a full 50 percent of them still return to the site every day, Sandberg said, something that surprised her because she'd assumed that late adopters would be far less active than early adopters.
More numbers: Facebook's mobile applications are used by 65 million people. The average user spends 5.75 hours on the site per month. And the average user now has 130 friends, up from 120 a year ago.
Competition and skepticism
Sandberg had good reason to persistently highlight both Facebook's staggering growth and its newfound cultural significance: The advertising industry simply hasn't had a whole lot of faith in social media. "We've had some stumbles, some of our own making, and I think it's fair to say we have more of our fair share of critics," Sandberg said, mentioning that she'd once gotten a phone call from her parents asking whether she was looking for a new job because they'd read a report that Facebook was running out of money.
Facebook has also had to compete for marketer attention with the (at least for now) more buzzworthy Twitter, which rose to fast fame amid celebrity endorsements, a high-profile role during last year's U.S. elections, and the seemingly ubiquitious placement of "tweets" on cable news programs. A Twitter profile and a Facebook fan page can be directly competing products.
But the real skepticism surrounding Facebook's potential as a moneymaking power--at least as long as it remains supported primarily by advertising--comes about because, at least until this point, there has been a lot of marketing buzz-speak but not a whole lot of concrete numbers to measure its actual success.
"You want measurement, measurement you can rely on, measurement that you believe is valid," Sandberg said. That's why Facebook approached Nielsen as a respected third party, she explained.
Brands have found significant success with Facebook fan pages, which are free to create, she said. But adding paid advertisements through Facebook's "Engagement Ads" product can enhance those brand pages significantly, Sandberg explained. (It also means Facebook gets paid.)
"A year ago we introduced Engagement Ads. Rather than having to go to different sites or go to landing pages, consumers were able to engage with marketers directly with the ads themselves," Sandberg explained. "(They can) RSVP to the event, 'fan' a page, watch a video and comment, send a branded gift, or respond to questions from a marketer." As part of Tuesday's announcement, Sandberg announced that Engagement Ads have been expanded to include an easy way for Facebook members to request free product samples.
There were some skeptical questions from the audience, notably one that inquired about the poor searchability and indexing features on Facebook profiles and fan pages. The audience member asked whether this was potentially being upgraded.
"The short answer, is do we want to take content and make you more easily able to find it, find it now, find it later?" Sandberg responded. "Of course. And it's something we're definitely working on."