Pt. 1: Facebook’s House Fire
(Part 1 is a recent history of Facebook changes. If you’re short on time and only want to know the latest change to Facebook’s advertising platform and its social marketing impact, scroll down to Part 2: Affinity Targeting Turns to Ash.)
We say all the time that digital marketing is a fast moving space. Snap stories are out, Instagram stories are in. Google AdWords is out, Google Ads is in. Twitter is… okay, your guess is as good as ours.
Then there is Facebook.
Where do we get started with the social media giant? Under congressional scrutiny, blamed for giving the Russians a vessel to influence the election, for what we have lived idly accepting: Facebook knows everything about us.
Facebook’s wealth of user data, enhanced with readily accessible third-party data, made the platform a boon for easily and effectively advertising events like a local art exhibit or a tyrannical overtaking of a foreign government. Users got ads from everyone and anyone, and advertising flourished.
Then election backlash happened. Then Congress happened. Then reform started.
Then changes started happening at light speed.
Since the Zuckerberg testimony, Facebook has started dismantling its own super powers in an effort to make the platform safer for users; and less powerful for advertisers seeking to wield Facebook’s power for their own self-interested desires.
The first of these super powers to go was 3rd party data access from the advertising platform. In the past Facebook had been the middle man for 3rd party data providers and advertisers. They made 3rd party data buying a single payer system on the Facebook platform.
By ending 3rd party data access, Facebook sent a clear message: if you want to use these powers for good (or evil) we are passing the liability of using 3rd party data on to the advertiser.
To be clear 3rd party data isn’t gone. Advertisers can still partner with companies like Oracle, Alliant, On-Spot and more. It’s just that Facebook will no longer be the negotiator. Now advertisers must contact data providers and negotiate with them to build custom audiences that were once standard in Facebook.
Ouch. But we get it, Zuckerberg; you don’t want to go back in front of Congress.
All the big advertising changes at Facebook have fallen under a larger Facebook initiative to increase transparency.
Everyone had been saying “Facebook sends me this ad, then Facebook sends me another ad, they know everything about me and it’s spooky.” I can’t think of many brands who want to be labeled as “spooky.” So Facebook needed to change the dialogue. How did they do it? They made the platform more transparent.
Users can now download all the data Facebook has ever collected on them. (You should try it. Follow Facebook’s walkthrough here.)
Users can also see who is sending them ads and how.
Check out this ad I got today:
No surprises here. I spend a lot of time on cycling websites, buying bike parts and looking at bike pictures on Instagram, fixed gear in particular. I have probably been put into a cycling interest category by Facebook and Fyxation has appropriately targeted me as a potential customer. Nice work Fyxation.
But what if I wasn’t a marketer? What if instead, I was a regular Facebook user who just got creeped out that Fyxation has me pinpointed? I might ask, “Why am I seeing this? How do they know all of this about me?!”
Well thanks to Facebook push for transparency I can see exactly why and how. Look below:
By clicking the three dots in the top right of the ad, a drop down opens with a few options and one of them matches m question.
By selecting “Why am I seeing this?” I get this response from Facebook:
Now I know why I have seen the ad. It’s a lot more transparent. There is no black box. I was on the Fyxation website recently or I could be meeting some other targeting parameters their marketing team has put in place.
As a user I understand now that it wasn’t Facebook targeting me, it was Fyxation. And if I want to control my newsfeed better and not see these ads, Facebook has given me the right to do so.
(Don’t worry Fyxation, I won’t block you. You make some stellar pedals.)
Great! The platform is more transparent and the liability of 3rd party data is passed onto the advertiser. The Facebook team is handling this all fairly well.
Then, oh wait, here come the Feds (a.k.a. the Department of Housing and Urban Development).
Pt. 2: Affinity Targeting Turns to Ash
Usually people say, “Don’t kick a man when he’s down,” but when the man is a multibillion dollar company with global influence, everyone wants a piece of him.
Last week the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) filed a complaint against Facebook for enabling landlords and agents to use the platform’s ad targeting features to discriminate against potential renters and home buyers based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion and more. (Read the initial report from Housingwire here.)
In essence, advertisers in the housing industry were using the exclusion feature in Facebook, while building their ad campaigns, to remove groups from their targeting. i.e. We want to show ads to potential renters except African Americans, Asians and Latinx Facebook users. Yikes.
Now let’s be clear. Affinity targeting isn’t inherently bad. This too was a super power. In fact, for many of our social marketing campaigns, affinity group targeting gave our public health and education-focused clients an added assurance that their messages reached underserved communities.
Latinx’es in east LA have lower propensity of attending college? Radius target East Los Angeles College and layer the geographic area with a Latinx affinity category to reach your audience.
Affinity targeting was very effective because it required very little market research to reach target audiences. But now thanks to the misuse of an excellent tool, multicultural affinities and 5,000 other targeting capabilities will soon be removed from Facebook.
What do we do now?
While we will miss affinity targets, they were not the backbone of our campaigns and we will move on just fine. Our company has been in the social marketing space for 40 years now. We have done, and will continue to do, the research it takes to target multicultural audiences effectively. More importantly we will continue to adapt our strategies to the ever-evolving digital advertising landscape.
We recognize many of the changes at Facebook will have ramifications across the industry. When they change their rule book, many other advertisers follow.
We see the changes at Facebook to be a larger message to the industry: develop and use your first-party data for advertising.
This puts an added emphasis on remarketing pixels, conversion audiences and lookalike audiences to better reach your target groups.
While the pressure is on for advertisers, you can be sure Facebook will be hard at work too. Machine learning optimizations and retargeting are areas where Facebook will continue to excel. Their user base is 2.23 billion people and I don’t even want to fathom the number of data points that is. And just as they’ve recommended that advertisers learn from their audiences, Facebook is learning from theirs too. The big difference is: when Facebook learns, every advertiser gets better.