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What the Facebook Ad Targeting Changes Mean for Your Social Media Strategy
Facebook is eliminating ad targeting options that come from third-party data miners, which means you need to rethink your audience targeting and social media advertising strategy.
If you advertise on Facebook, you’re most likely aware that it’s been in some hot water recently. If you’re really on top of your social media current events, you know that this largely stems from the incredibly detailed (and arguably invasive) targeting options that were recently brought to light.
If you’re not a social media geek like me, here’s the TL;DR version:
- Facebook offers advertisers incredibly detailed ad targeting options based on data about users’ lives both on and off the platform. This data included things like keyword-based interests and job titles, ethnic identities, credit card spending habits, purchasing habits, and financial information.
- Social media marketers and advertising executives across the globe figured out how to obtain and combine these bits of user data to create hyper-targeted, manipulative, and sometimes discriminatory and invasive ad campaigns. Examples included discriminatory housing ads (only advertising to members of a certain ethnic identity and income level), and false political ads.
- While advertisers like myself were privy to the knowledge that Facebook mined user data from commercial data brokers, it was widely unknown to the public until after the US presidential election and Russian ad scandal in 2016.
- In September, 2017, Facebook removed four targeting options—education, employer, field of study, and job title—in response to an exposé by ProPublica on how easy it was to create anti-Semitic ads and have them approved by the platform (see image below).
- As if being able to create racist, hateful ads wasn’t messed up enough, the more recent Cambridge Analytica scandal put Facebook’s data collection and advertising targeting options back under scrutiny, this time for data privacy violation.
After data privacy violations and audience targeting manipulation were shoved into the limelight after the election, users started to wake up to how social media sites were harvesting and using their personal information. Thanks to the resulting public outrage about the data Facebook possesses (and, to be frank, then sells in the form of advertising targeting capabilities) about its users, it’s been taking greater steps to restore that trust and ensure users their data is secure.
One of the results of Facebook’s effort to win back trust is to eliminate partner categories—data provided by third-party data mining companies that sell consumer information to the highest bidder.
Over the next six months, Facebook will be phasing out partner categories. If you rely on attributes like home ownership, investments, credit card spending habits, and other information only third parties would have, you have exactly six months to restructure your targeting strategy.
Where Facebook Gets its Ad Targeting Information
To really understand what’s happening, you first need to know where Facebook gets the data advertisers can use for ad targeting. Facebook generally gets its data from four places:
- Advertisers (like membership status in a loyalty program)
- Information you voluntarily give (your birthday, if you’ve indicated what books and TV shows you like, your job title, etc.)
- Any type of interaction on posts and pages
- Data supplied by third-party commercial brokers
It’s data from these third-party brokers—or, as Facebook calls them, advertising partners—that Facebook is now eliminating.
What Are Facebook’s Partner Categories?
What Are Partner Categories?
“Partner Categories are targeting options provided by Facebook’s third-party data partners. These partners are part of Facebook Marketing Partner’s ‘Audience Data Provider’ specialty.
With Partner Categories you can target people based on offline behaviors people take outside of Facebook, such as owning a home, being in the market for a new truck or being a loyal purchaser of a specific brand or product. Partner Categories complement Facebook targeting, and are especially useful for advertisers, particularly those without access to customer data. Advertisers can easily add Partner Categories to their campaigns through Ads Manager or by requesting the categories directly from a data partner.
Partner Categories effectively drive metrics like brand resonance and offline sales when used in conjunction with Facebook media.” – Facebook
Basically, a partner category is anything Facebook users don’t provide in their profile or engagement habits. This includes anything that has to do with home ownership, income, credit card spending habits, etc. Facebook’s website lists nine third-party data providers that it has worked with, including Acxiom, Experian, Oracle Data Cloud, TransUnion and WPP PLC. These third-party partners collect and model data from a variety of sources, like public records, loyalty card programs, surveys and independent data providers.
What Facebook’s Ad Targeting Changes Mean for Your Company’s Social Media Advertising Strategy:
Here’s the truth of it:
Facebook has so much data on its users that this isn’t that huge of a deal. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say Facebook took all forms of demographic and personal attribute targeting away (it hasn’t nor has it released plans to do so), leaving only your engagement with the platform to provide data.
Well, here’s the thing—people spend a lot of time on Facebook and Instagram (remember, Instagram is owned by Facebook, and is on-pace to become the leading social media networking site), and during that time they do things. Like pause on a video. Or like a friend’s photo. Or share a motivational link.
It’s not that hard for Facebook to look at all those likes, shares, pauses, and—oh, yea—posts and uploads of yours and figure out a basic consumer profile.
I’ll give you an example—my professional Facebook page. I use it strictly for professional and research-related things, and I don’t spend that much time browsing on it. You’d think Facebook wouldn’t have that much information on me, right?
I recently downloaded my Facebook data archive (which tells you every single thing Facebook knows about you), and take a look at what Facebook has gathered about my “interests” for advertising purposes:
I’ll admit—some of those topics are bogus and baffle me as to why they’re there (I have stood on a skateboard. I have wobbled a few feet down the sidewalk on one. I have spectacularly fallen off one. I wouldn’t call it an interest of mine.). But for the most part, if you successfully combine the right interest targeting, you can drill down your audience pretty well.
I’ll use myself as an example, again.
Let’s say someone wanted to target someone like me for a new marketing automation platform. The new platform is similar to Hootsuite, but also has keyword capabilities like Moz. It’s integrated with SEO-friendly tools and has been recommended by Google.
If that advertiser wanted ME to see her ads, she’d set up an “and” (as opposed to an “or” structure) advanced targeting segment to target the following topics/interests:
See? There is still PLENTY of information for you to drill down your audiences with.
Oh yea, and there’s one more thing.
Facebook can’t afford to lose its advertisers. Mobile advertising has accounted for more than 90 percent of Facebook’s revenue growth and currently drives 88 percent of the company’s total revenue. What that should tell you is as worked up as you are about your Facebook advertising strategy, you’re nowhere near the stress level of Facebook’s head of advertising services. I guarantee they will figure out a way to keep advertisers happy.
Don’t forget, just because Facebook is shutting down partner categories doesn’t mean those companies are going to cease to exist. If you’re really stuck on getting that in-depth data, you can always contact the data firm directly and have your own analysis done.
What to Do Now if You Facebook Advertising Strategy Uses Partner Categories:
If your company’s social media strategy relies on partner categories for advertising, it’s time to start thinking about what the future may look like:
- Don’t panic, this is a slow rollout. Don’t go tearing up your social media strategy and starting from scratch. Instead, start exploring your target audience to look for connections and interests you may not have noticed before.
- Be ready for a change. Artificial intelligence is advancing at an extremely rapid pace. The more data and algorithm capabilities that become available, the more reliable existing targeting capabilities become. We will begin to see better social media targeting capabilities from machine learning (similar to how Google “remembers” what web pages you’ve visited and your search history), effectively taking out the middle man. Basically, all hope is not lost. The next big thing is around the corner.
- Get more creative. I’ll admit—advertisers have gotten lazy, at least on Facebook, and it’s all thanks for these hyper-targeted partner categories. Well, what did you do before these categories existed? What would happen if you just used more advanced interest-based segmenting? What about “friends of” segmenting? What all have you tried? There is always a way to target the exact right people—remarketing for example. Remarketing or retargeting has a higher conversion rate than interest or demographic-based advertising. Look into it.
- If you 100% counted on partner categories, think about shifting your budgets. There are other, much more effective avenues of digital marketing that are developing (like video and voice search), so it isn’t the end of the world to switch some budget off of Facebook and onto other platforms.
Basically, if you’re smart about it, get creative, and re-examine your budgets, you’ll survive this just fine. If you need someone to help you through all the changes, give us a call, we’d be happy to do the legwork for you.
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