Facebook Ad targeting | The musings of a former Facebook employee

Facebook Ad targeting | The musings of a former Facebook employee

Since I spent three and half fascinating years working at Facebook’s London HQ, I feel I have a different relationship with it from day-to-day users. I often find myself reflecting on how people perceive “the social media giant” (as it’s often called) from the outside.

By “people” I mean the day-to-day users of the site, the very people it was built to connect to one another; the people who see Facebook as anything from an everyday (every hour?) essential to something they dip into now and again.

“The power and intelligence of Facebook’s targeting capabilities”

Two examples of the power and intelligence of Facebook’s targeting capabilities have struck me in the past 18 hours: yesterday, my friend posted a joke about BMW drivers and their seemingly broken indicators.

The below screengrab is of an advert from BMW that recently featured on my news feed.

MicrosoftTeams image 11.png

Was this luck? Was it Facebook’s algorithm picking up on “BMW” in my friend’s post and making the decision that I should see some sponsored content from them in the same screen as my friend’s joke? Would I have seen the sponsored BMW UK post even if my friend hadn’t shared his joke? I fit into their target market, after all, and I’ve seen plenty of ads from them in the past, plus I like their page.

The second example was a sponsored post this morning which linked to Facebook’s “Here Together” landing page, which is part of the brand’s campaign to reassure people they aren’t stealing their data after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This time they’ve even produced a video with an English voiceover, rather than the standard West Coast American Millennial that usually features.

The reason the second example caught my eye? I’d just been reading about the UK’s data protection watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, announcing that it intends to fine Facebook £500,000 for data breaches.

Again, I fall squarely into the core market for ads promoting Facebook’s broader view of their responsibilities, but then, I’m ex-Facebook, so are they hoping I’ll still have that loyalty and share the video/article, or has the more generic targeting eclipsed that? Either way, it worked, as I’m sharing the content here!

It’s all about user experience

What’s my point here? Simple: Facebook needs to know what you like. We talk to clients (and anyone else who’ll listen!) about the importance of making the most of what Facebook knows about its users. When people have their “business head” on, they really see the potential for putting their content and brand in front of the people who will engage most effectively. But then there are some whose first thought is: “Whoa, that’s scary”.

Yes, it is scary, but only really if you mistakenly believe that Facebook is targeting me as “Alex Wright” rather than me as a user who fits into millions of different anonymous targeting “buckets”: age, gender, location, interests, behaviour, online and offline actions and so on.

All social media platforms want more users. And they want those users to spend more time on their platforms. And tell their friends who aren’t on those platforms to hurry up and get themselves there, so they aren’t missing out on anything.

For the users to get the most valuable experience, Facebook needs to know what they like. It needs to show them what they want to see, even if they didn’t know they wanted to see it. And to do that, it needs to understand them better.

Your friends tend to only tell you stories about things they think interest you; show you pictures and videos of things that will make you laugh/cry/think. If they deliberately show you things you don’t like, they clearly don’t know or understand you, or they’re one of my friends from university sports days!

A generic example I like to share is that magazine editors decide what their readers would see in each copy, from articles to advertisements. This is based (loosely) on the target audience, attracting and retaining readers and keeping commercial partners happy. It is up to the reader if they choose to consume some or all of the content and/or ads. The editor(s) influence what the readers see. But people tend not to get as hot under the collar about that because the publisher doesn’t know exactly who is reading their magazine, so it is a best-guess rather than constant data-sharing.

“A tailored experience online”

Social media has changed over the past few years, from something people saw as a guilty pleasure, to part of over 3 billion internet users’ regular content consumption. Some see it, and Facebook in particular, as their portal into the internet, which is incredible.

If the platforms can tailor every user’s experience to one that enhances their day, without opening people up to cyber-attacks or “stealing” data like Cambridge Analytica were doing, is it a bad thing?

I don’t mean to appear flippant or to have a relaxed approach to information security, but I’d much rather have a tailored experience online than be wading through articles about cats, crappy diet plans and EastEnders, in exchange for Facebook knowing (well, assuming really) that I work in Brigg and visit the BBC News website a few times a day.

Alex Wright
Knapton Wright

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