Starting today, some Facebook users in the United States can pay $7 a pop to "promote" a personal post, making it more likely to appear near the top of their friends' timelines. The social network announced on its blog that it is testing the service for a limited number of U.S. users with fewer than 5,000 friends and subscribers. It has already rolled it out to 20 other countries.
The promoted posts concept isn't entirely new: Facebook began offering it to U.S. businesses in May through their brand pages. What's new is that it's now available to individual users as well. (Facebook actually tried out a sort of stealth version of this too in May, called highlighted posts, but now it's getting serious about it.) The initial price seems to be $7, but that could vary over time. Facebook's Abhishek Doshi explains:
Every day, news feed delivers your posts to your friends. Sometimes a particular friend might not notice your post, especially if a lot of their friends have been posting recently and your story isn’t near the top of their feed. When you promote a post—whether it’s wedding photos, a garage sale, or big news—you bump it higher in news feed so your friends and subscribers are more likely to notice it.
This feature has drawn ridicule in the press from the start. PC Magazine in May called highlighted posts "a new tool for jerks," and WebProNews snarked that Facebook is "testing the self-absorption and inherent narcisissm of its users by allowing them to pay to make sure their witty statuses and clever amateur photography reach the maximum number of friends."
But unless I missed something, sharing your posts with your friends is the whole point of Facebook. Well, that and seeing the posts that your friends want to share. The problem is that there are so many people posting on the site that your friends often miss things that you'd really like them to see, and vice versa. Earlier this year Facebook disclosed that the average news feed story reaches just 12 percent of your friends. Is it such a crime to want the occasional really important update to reach farther?
The potential downside is that promoted posts, if they really catch on, could crowd out important non-promoted posts at the top of your news feed. But Facebook could always modulate that by raising its prices and tweaking its algorithms.
In the long run, this seems like a smart strategy for a company that is under enormous pressure to start squeezing some money out of its massive free-riding user base. I've suggested before that Facebook offer users the option to pay a subscription fee rather than have their personal data mined for the benefit of third-party advertisers. In some ways, this is even better, because you can still use the service for free—it's just that your unpaid posts will be marginally less likely to top your friends' news feeds. That's a price I'd be willing to pay, especially if it means that Facebook can cool it with the creepy facial-recognition and offline-tracking stuff.
Between promoted posts and Facebook Gifts, it seems clear that Facebook is looking for a path to revenue growth that doesn't run through a privacy minefield. Here's hoping it finds it.