It’s always harder than it should be to remember what Facebook used to look like. There wasn’t always a Timeline, or even a News Feed. But even way back in the beginning, around 2004 or 2005, Facebook had ads. They sat on the left-hand side of the page and were digital approximations of ads for the university chess club. “We were selling them on college campuses,” says Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer. “We sold them to the same people who were buying ads in college papers. They were exactly what you would see on bulletin boards across college campuses.”
They were, to put it bluntly, not exactly inspired. But the fact that ads were part of Facebook’s earliest iterations—before Instagram, photo tagging, or even the Wall—is significant. Even then, before the flashy branding we see in the News Feed today, Facebook ads were a hot commodity. “A lot of the power of using Facebook [for advertising] is that they can target the kind of people they care about versus targeting everybody,” says Cox. In 2004, this meant college kids—sure, you could narrow things down by location, age, school, major, or gender even then, but now Facebook offers advertisers far more ways to slice and dice their audiences, especially since 2012, when advertisers gained access to the News Feed, the biggest prize of all.
‘Facebook as an app overall should feel more and more immersive.’ Chris Cox, Facebook
Starting this week, the ads that brands can serve to their desired demographics (er, I mean, us!) in the News Feed are about to get a big facelift. Facebook has opened Canvas, its mobile ad creation platform, to everyone. The tool was only available to a handful of brands; now absolutely anyone can jump in. Canvas is sort of the Instant Articles for advertisers: Ads made using it load way, way faster, and it gives advertisers more ways to be visually creative within Facebook.
The idea, at least to some extent, is that Canvas-made ads blend into your News Feed rather than disrupt it. Ad campaigns can now include features like look books made using Canvas’s carousel tool, or tilt mode, so you can tilt and move your phone around to explore inside a panoramic image. These images load quicker, too, since they use Facebook’s own backend for videos and photos. “We thought for awhile that Facebook as an app overall should feel more and more immersive,” says Cox. “News Feed and a page shouldn’t just feel like a 2-D surface—it should feel like a window with something underneath it.”
In effect, Facebook is doing for ads what it’s done for many of the new formats it’s recently unveiled for content on Facebook—from Instant Articles and collages to 360 videos and streaming live video. Cox says Canvas is built to bring the same qualities Facebook prizes in these new formats to ads on Facebook. “They all have the property that they aren’t just a webpage floating on a screen. You’re making a unique experience.”
You may well have seen a few of these new ads floating around during the last few months. Maybe you remember a certain Wendy’s ad that took you inside the sequential building of a burger. But Facebook didn’t want Canvas to be a tool only big corporate advertisers could use. The company says it worked to ensure anyone regardless of their skill level could use Canvas to create Internet ads that don’t look like Internet ads. Instead, think of Canvas ads more like micro-site landing pages: more interactive, more pointed, and, Facebook hopes, more beautiful and more fun. Facebook and advertisers know that especially on mobile devices, people’s attention can’t be assumed or demanded. It has to be earned. And mobile ads have long struggled to earn any attention at all.
‘We’re very used to creating advertising that’s designed to literally come between you and the thing you care about.’ Mark D’arcy, Facebook
This years-long struggle among ad-based businesses to adjust to a mobile-first world is why Facebook is approaching ads in a way that couldn’t be more different than how it ran things in those first days—really, how the entire Internet has long approached advertising. You dedicated space for ads—typically the sidebar or a banner—and you sold those spaces. People paid for that online real estate, and you threw their content in there. It’s not just Facebook that’s had to figure how to improve things—how to make Internet ads that, well, weren’t terrible.
“It’s always been if you want to look at something, then you have to go and look at something else,” says Facebook Creative Shop Chief Creative Officer Mark D’arcy, of the prevailing “clickthrough” paradigm of online advertising. “[Ads were] something that disrupted the experience.”
And they need to be smaller. The move from desktop to phone is as big a shift for advertising as the move from radio to television. “The thing we’ve done in the industry for 120 years is jam the old thing into a new box,” D’arcy says. “You jam it in and get frustrated that it doesn’t fit properly. And then we figure out ‘hey, this is different!’ We’re very used to creating advertising that’s designed to literally come between you and the thing you care about.”
Ads You’re Into
Speaking of disrupting the experience, does Canvas mean the News Feed is going to be more overrun with ads than ever? Facebook (surprise!) says no. The News Feed algorithm isn’t changing, the company says. It’s just that the ads that do appear will likely be more varied, depending on how advertisers use the tool.
Which raises yet another question: Does that mean we might start seeing some, well, crappier Canvas-made ads? If everyone has access now, doesn’t that raise the gate for less talented advertisers to populate News Feed with worse experiences? Cox says no, that organically crappy ads get crappy placement. “If an ad doesn’t perform well, News Feed doesn’t show it to many people. And the advertiser gets a lot of feedback very early on.”
Still, crap is in the eye of the beholder. D’Arcy says Facebook itself can’t point to a particular ad that it could call perfect. “You have an entirely different life than me or a 19-year-old woman in Nigeria or a retired millionaire in California or a sheep farmer in Australia,” he says. “The best ad depends on you.”
One thing I have to wonder a bit is why users don’t have access to these tools too. Wouldn’t it be cool to make a tilt-and-explore 360-degree photo from your hiking trip? Or maybe a carousel of photos from your day that you could post to Instagram? When I asked Cox about users having access to these things, he pointed out that we have Layout for Instagram and photo collages for Facebook. I mean, he’s not wrong, but those two products definitely pale in comparison with the new nifty effects advertisers get to use.
Plus, Canvas’s features are forward-thinking. They’re great for mobile, but they’re going to be even better in VR. (Cox didn’t offer any details, but he did acknowledge that Canvas was built with VR in mind.) Being able to “physically” pull and push your way through an ad will make them vastly more interesting and interactive. Moving out of 2-D alone makes these ads more than ads: It makes them new ground for us to play around in—or at least it will, once we’re all toting Oculus Rift headsets around with us. And maybe then, the rest of us will get to start playing around too.