Is ‘Banner Blindness’ Spreading to the Facebook News Feed?

By Aaron Taube February 26th, 2015

In many ways, our time spent on Facebook starts to blur together. On any given scroll through the News Feed, people can expect to see a similar mix of content: baby pics, “Which [Thing From Your Childhood] Are You?” quizzes, snow photos, memes, people dancing (either really well or really poorly), and thought-provoking articles.

According to a recent study from Havas Media, we’re starting to become desensitized to it all.

The media agency partnered with facial recognition software firm CrowdEmotion to show 50 respondents a video mock-up of a Facebook News Feed that included posts about “funny job titles,” personal content like selfies and photos of newborn babies, and sponsored ads from real brands like Cadbury and Shopcade.

The researchers found that less than 20 percent of stories people saw generated an emotional response as picked up by CrowdEmotion’s software, which captures facial expressions and extrapolates what people are feeling. Even worse for marketers, none of the sponsored stories generated any detectable response at all.

“Everything that brands seek to provide—stimulus that gets pulses racing and people talking, or even smiling, is getting lost in the social media space, in favor of ‘what works,'” the study concludes. “What we’ve seen from the research is that when brands, or even people, stick to a formula, social content becomes like wallpaper—with users skipping to the content that either surprises or personalizes their experience.”

Even though Havas Media issues a warning that people are “developing blindness to branded content on social media,” it’s hard to tell just how much the study really means for marketers. (The agency ignored our repeated requests for an interview.)

While a scrolling video of a News Feed might not have generated a strong emotional response from the small sample size of users in the study, it’s entirely possible that in real life, the users might have been intrigued enough to click through to sponsored content and register an emotional response.

In any event, Just Media President Brandon Friesen says that judging from the campaigns his firm has run on Facebook, the site’s users are not ignoring sponsored content in a manner even remotely resembling the way people have learned to disregard traditional banner ads. In fact, he says, in terms of engagement and click-through rates, Facebook is one of the most effective platforms on the market.

“I think when you compare Facebook advertising to banner blindness, it’s almost night and day,” Friesen explains. “The amount of frequency that you have to generate with banners in order to garner the same amount of response that you get through a platform like Facebook is incredible.”

Still, he admits the sheer volume of content people are consuming online each day could be making social media users feel numb to things they once found interesting or shocking. And since brands on Facebook compete for attention with all of the regular posts from the site’s hundreds of millions of users, it can be even more difficult to break through the noise.

But rather than thinking brands should simply make content more “intense,” as Havas Media Head of Futures Amy Kean recommended in the firm’s press release announcing the study, Friesen believes brands should focus instead on creating content that provides consumers with real value.

Additionally, content creators may have a better chance if they invest in video content, which would be a smart way to take advantage of Facebook’s new autoplay video feature. Friesen says this motion, combined with strong content, can be massively effective. In the campaigns Just Media has run, he has seen click-through rates of up to 8 percent compared to rates of around 0.1 percent for the average banner ad.

“When I look at the click-through rates on Facebook’s autoplay video, it blows away anything you see from traditional banner ads or even in-banner video,” Friesen adds. “I think the bottom line is yes, there could be some blindness going on. But when you look at the data and you compare Facebook to a lot of other media types in the market—display, programmatic, even traditional guaranteed lead programs—it’s growing in terms of share of budget based on its performance.”

Not bad for a platform where people have become “blind” to the content they’re seeing.

Image by Piotr Marcinski
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