Will Facebook’s trending topics be a boon to brands?

The short answer is yes, but if Facebook history is any indication, only for the brands that are willing to pay up.

Facebook’s latest innovation, a “trending” section, isn’t much of an innovation at all. Twitter has been showing its trending topics on the left side of your feed for years, and it’s become really good at it.

More than anything, Facebook might be starting to tip its hand on where it’s going with real-time marketing opportunities for brands.

To start, Facebook’s list of what’s trending is not much more than a handy tool for users to understand very quickly what people are talking about. If history is any indication, though, it’ll soon be an advertising venue. The question is whether people will pay attention as they do to Twitter’s trends or just ignore it.

A brand-jacking service?

What this could create is an avenue for paid corporate brand-jacking. Here’s a scenario:

In the middle of the Super Bowl, the stadium loses power. The lights go out. Oreo and Chips Ahoy—bitter rivals in the billion-dollar cookie game—both have teams in place to come up with content at a moment’s notice.

Oreo comes up with a funny “Dunk in the Dark” image and shares it on Facebook. Chips Ahoy comes up with something, too. Not as funny, but still clever. If Chips Ahoy is paying Facebook to have its content sponsored in real time, their post will jump to the top no matter how much lamer it is than the unsponsored post.

I’ve spent close to $1 million on behalf of brands to sponsor content on Facebook, and if things continue the way they have been, brand content will not be seen in the “trending” section unless there are sponsorship dollars behind it.

Now, let’s say the “trending” section did exist during last year’s Super Bowl and Oreo had sponsored that post. Not only would it show up toward the top of fans’ newsfeeds, it would also show up for non-fans as one of the top posts in the trending section.

I haven’t seen any information on how to sponsor a post in the trending section yet, but it can’t be too far off. When it does, brands will have to create content on the fly and have the money ready to make sure eyes are on it.

Catching up to Twitter

If you look at how the two services presented Tuesday’s news of a campus shooting at Purdue University in which one person died, it’s clear that Facebook is playing catch-up.

Click through a trending topic on Twitter and you see the top story, the most-shared photos related to the event, suggested accounts to follow and you can refresh to see the latest tweets about the story.

Click through on Facebook, and you’ll see a clumsy mix of posts—mostly from local news stations—that pull in stock imagery. There’s a main story at the top that pulls in a thumbnail image. If your friends are talking about it, those posts will also show up.

From a user standpoint, it’s kind of a mess.

Take a look at some more lighthearted news, such as Warren Buffett’s offer of $1 billion to anyone who fills out a perfect March Madness bracket. When I clicked it, the first post was from someone named “VJ KiDD LeoW,” and it was written like someone who had skipped too many English classes.

The second story was from the infinitely more reputable MarketWatch, which had a post about shares of ExxonMobil basking in a “Warren Buffett effect”—nothing to do with March Madness.

It’s apparent that Facebook has some kinks to work out with the trending feature if the point is to make sure the most authoritative content is pushed to the top.

A tough spot for Facebook

In the wake of last week’s news that teens are fleeing Facebook by the millions, Facebook is in a difficult position. The user experience has to be flawless (because their competition is darn close). Yet they have to find new ways to persuade advertisers to fork over money in exchange for having their content by more people (and the right people) just when it can be most effective.

After using the “trending” button once and finding it completely useless, what incentive would a user have to try again?

Perhaps the social media giant’s new “trending” feature could be of great use to PR pros, even if it will require them to cough up some cash. Of course, if the “trending” section is still offering a clunky user experience, it’ll probably go the way of the “poke.”

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