Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg: Big Opportunity for Brand Advertising Online

I never would have thought magazines like BusinessWeek and fast-rising social networks like Facebook have much in common. But during an interview with BusinessWeek editor-in-chief Steve Adler today at the American Magazine Conference in San Francisco, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg revealed that she’s struggling with the same thing most magazines are: getting advertisers to better understand the value of branding on the Web.

The former vice president of global online sales and operations at Google, who joined Facebook last March, told the lunch audience that the only advertising that has worked really well so far is search ads. But they’re focused largely on fulfilling demand for things people already know they want. “What no one’s quite figured out what to do is demand generation,” she said. “We need to find a new model and new metrics.”

The basic challenge for Facebook is similar to the one most publications face especially online: “Users are not on Facebook looking to buy something,” she said. But she firmly believes that “where people spend their time is where advertisers will be eventually,” and notes there’s still a wide gulf between the amount of time people spend online and the proportion of advertising that has moved online.

Sandberg holds out hope that sites such as Facebook can integrate advertising into the kinds of things people are already doing on Facebook. “Sex in the City” movie studio Warner Bros. recently let people gift virtual shoes to their Facebook friends, for instance. “People don’t dislike ads,” she said. “They dislike irrelevant, annoying ads.” So if Facebook can target ads based on personal information—without annoying or freaking people out—she thinks there’s plenty of opportunity for brands that currently don’t find search ads very appealing to move more forcefully online.

Now, if she can just casually mention to those advertisers what she mentioned to me and Steve before the lunchtime event: She still loves reading magazines in print, too.

(Update: Mediapost has a bit more on Sandberg’s interview.)