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Facebook Mobile Ads Developing: Sponsored Stories Coming ‘Within Weeks’

It’s not digital advertising in the sense of display ads and search results, but it looks like we are getting a bit more color on what it is that Facebook will do first in the world of mobile marketing, and it could be coming online “within weeks.”

The company is gearing up to start inserting “featured stories” into people’s mobile feeds — effectively, marketing-led posts — which could start appearing as soon as early March. The date and news of the launch comes from the FT, which cites several people familiar with Facebook’s planning as its source.

Since filing its S-1 for an initial public offering last week, there has been a lot of speculation on how, exactly, mobile will fit into Facebook’s money-making picture longer term. The company was very sober in its description of its mobile business — usage is growing faster than even desktop engagement, but there’s no money in that growth yet, it admitted.

That was something of a bum note in a document that otherwise dazzles with its growth story to date.

If the FT report is true, it could mark the first step in Facebook’s strategy to change that and start to make marketing dollars out of its 425-million active mobile users, and take a portion of a mobile ad market that is going to top $2 billion in the U.S. alone this year.

Facebook still has a long way to go before its mobile presence — via the mobile web and apps — is a mirror, or even enhanced, version of what it offers on the desktop. However, it does look like there may be also some developments underfoot there as well, in the form of app buttons appearing on Facebook’s mobile web site.

Meanwhile, the news of “featured stories” appears to be a development on a story from last week, which quoted Paul Gelb, head of mobile for agency Razorfish, saying that his company was trialling rich-media mobile advertising with Facebook.

Facebook may well be looking into more classic display ads for its mobile interfaces, but in any event Gelb later clarified that he was referring to “rich media featured stories”, not ads.

But if featured stories are what are in play here, Facebook gave nothing away in its own statement to paidContent: “We want to clarify that we are not working with any agency to create paid ads on our mobile platform,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Even so, the past few days are not the first time that the subject of Facebook mobile sponsored stories have come up: in December, Bloomberg also noted that Facebook would launch such a service in March 2012.

Facebook has already taken over in markets like the U.S. and UK in terms of having the biggest share of revenues in online display ads, so it seems like a no-brainer that it would take that pole position into the mobile sphere. However, issues over privacy, and the basic lack of real estate on a mobile screen have been some of the gating factors in Facebook taking up the mobile marketing opportunity more aggressively.

When Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s global VP of marketing solutions, spoke at paidContent’s Advertising conference in September 2011, she highlighted Facebook’s caution in this mobile:

“We are holding ourselves to as high a standard as possible on mobile,” she said. “I don’t rule mobile out, but we are working hard to figure out what the right model is. We haven’t figured that out yet.”

As we noted at the time, check-in deals have been the one exception to that so far: when a user is in a location where Facebook can deliver a relevant offer, those deals are pushed to users. But if that has driven revenues to Facebook, it was not enough to merit a mention in the S-1 form.