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Inside//Out: Facebook Beacon

facebook_logo.jpgWow, when those Facebook guys launch a new service, they really know how to create some buzz. Their latest addition is a service called Beacon. Quite simply, Beacon is a way for marketers to allow users on their sites to send information to Facebook. Some examples include making a blog post on Typepad and having it automatically fed into Facebook or eBay sellers having their products pushed to their profiles. This is a great way to bring chunks of information into one central location and when paired with Facebook's Social Ads, it's a powerful, integrated marketing tool.

Some big name marketers are using Beacon at this very moment. They include, Blockbuster,, CBS Interactive ( & Dotspotter), ExpoTV, Gamefly, Hotwire, Joost, Kiva, Kongregate, LiveJournal, Live Nation, Mercantila, National Basketball Association,,, (RED), Redlight, SeamlessWeb, Sony Online Entertainment LLC, Sony Pictures, STA Travel, The Knot, TripAdvisor, Travel Ticker, TypePad, viagogo, Vox, Yelp, and

But, Beacon is causing quite a stir with privacy advocates. One reason is that some sites are using Beacon to send data to Facebook without asking the users if they want to do participate. Beacon looks to see if you have a valid Facebook cookie on your machine and uses that to push content to your account. (Multple people using one machine will undoubtedly have problems with Beacon since it is machine specific.) Charlene Li at Forrester has one such story while making a purchase on Many other people are talking about Beacon across the blogosphere.

Facebook is only partly to blame. Marketers who use Beacon to exploit their users should be held fully accountable.

In a TechCrunch article, Facebook is quoted as saying:

Facebook is listening to feedback from its users and committed to evolving Beacon so users have even more control over the actions shared from participating sites with their friends on Facebook…Facebook already has made changes to ensure that no information is shared unless a user receives notifications both on a participating website and on Facebook.

Check out the video as I take you through a real example and be sure to jump down below for more information and some guidelines all marketers should follow.

[Feed readers, please click through to the post if you cannot see the video.]

Here is a diagram of how it works (click for a larger image):

  1. Marketers apply for and install the beacon code on their site
  2. Marketers then set up actions on their site to send information with Beacon
  3. Beacon looks on the user's local machine to see if they have a valid Facebook cookie, if it finds one, it sends the data to Facebook
  4. When users log in, they are presented with a message asking to allow the data to be pulled in
  5. Users can automatically allow all, request to authorize each or deny all on a site-by-site basis
  6. If approved, the message is added to the users timeline (mini-feed) and is presented to their friends on the main landing page

Guidelines for marketers:

  1. Make sure that you are allowing people to opt-in to use Beacon to push information to their profile. This is permission marketing 101.
  2. Allow them to opt in to each action you hook Beacon up to (if there are three places you are using it, that's three opt ins).
  3. Add some explanatory information every time information is sent, as you saw in the video the notification Facebook uses is seen only briefly. Give people a short reminder and allow them to opt out quickly.
  4. Only use beacon for things that will add value to the user on Facebook. Hold off on the mundane things and focus on items that add value, reduce the time spent re-typing it on Facebook or hook into an application the user already has installed.

Points of contention from privacy groups that you need to be aware of:

  • Some sites are not allowing people to opt in to use Beacon, instead people are surprised by it (See items 1, 2 and 3 above).
  • The opt-out message shown on the screen is too quick and not prominent enough (you can see this in the video)
  • The alert on Facebook (after you log in) is hard to see and, again, is phrased as an opt out message instead of opt in.
  • Each use of Beacon requires users to set preferences and is tedious.

The opportunities with Beacon are immense, but if marketers lose sight of customer privacy it can be a disaster. What do you think about Beacon? Is it too invasive? What should Facebook do to make it work without sacrificing privacy? They have to make some changes to this, but it's anybody's guess as to when that will happen.

[Update 1:] 11/29 Jeremiah just posted a link to this response from Facebook on Beacon via Twitter. The key points are: 1) making it more clear before something is posted to Facebook, 2) asking partners to provide visual cues that they use Beacon and 3) they are going to provide more info and a tutorial on how Beacon works to allay fears.

[Update 2:] 11/29 Justin Smith at InsideFacebook notes Facebook's changes to the system making it opt-in. He notes the following specifics:

  • Stories about actions users take on external websites will continue to be presented to users at the top of their News Feed the next time they return to Facebook. These stories will now always be expanded on their home page so they can see and read them clearly.
  • Users must click on “OK” in a new initial notification on their Facebook home page before the first Beacon story is published to their friends from each participating site. We recognize that users need to clearly understand Beacon before they first have a story published, and we will continue to refine this approach to give users choice.
  • If a user does nothing with the initial notification on Facebook, it will hide after some duration without a story being published. When a user takes a future action on a Beacon site, it will reappear and display all the potential stories along with the opportunity to click “OK” to publish or click “remove” to not publish.
  • Users will have clear options in ongoing notifications to either delete or publish. No stories will be published if users navigate away from their home page. If they delay in making this decision, the notification will hide and they can make a decision at a later time.
  • Clicking the “Help” link next to the story will take users to a full tutorial that explains exactly how Beacon works, with screenshots showing each step in the process.

[Update 3:] 12/5 Mark Zuckerberg has posted on the Facebook blog with an explanation and apology to users.

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