A Deep Dive on Facebook Targeting

This post was first available on the Proper Tack email list.

Facebook gives you a single advertising platform with the ability to reach 2 billion people across desktop and mobile devices, 3 of the top-7 social networks by user base (4 when they finally open up WhatsApp advertising) and an advertising network that spans millions of websites and mobile apps.

Simply put, if you’re not actively marketing on there, you’re probably doing something wrong. Since the power of the network is supposed to be putting your message in front of just the people you want, I wanted to walk through the basics of Facebooks targeting options and how to use them.

And then once we get through everything, we’ll look at a new article that breaks down some of the Russian strategy for their political Facebook ads.

1. Demographics
As a first step, you can target users for ads based on their age and gender. This is the easy one that I think everyone understands. But Facebook actually gives you more demographic data points to target off like language, household size, annual income, and education level.

Using those you can go after just the kind of person you think is your customer (35–45 year old housewives with young children and a $150k annual household income) and point specific ad copy to those audiences.

2. Location
All of that targeting above is great if you’re an online business who can serve customers anywhere. But the stationary store on the corner doesn’t want to be advertising to folks in Alaska who fit the demographic profile. With location you can drill down on the country, state, metro, city, or even zip code level, with the option to add a 10–50 mile radius around your target.

A nice little hack is to use this and demographics to target ads at folks you are trying to partner with. For instance, if you are a new consumer product and want to get in to Target and Wal-Mart, you can make a sneaky impression before major trade shows by sending ads out to 30–60 year olds with high incomes in Minneapolis, MN and Bentonville, AR.

Note that those 2 companies in particular are smart and won’t fall for your trickery as easily as some others. But the overall idea works.

3. Interests
Just like the category name implies, this level of targeting lets you select users who are interested in things that line up with your product. So if you are selling a gym subscription, you may want to focus on the “Fitness and wellness > Weight training” interest group with some 95.6M people.

Interest targeting is also where you can pick out brand pages (if they are large enough) to target against. For instance, you can target the 3.2M people who like pages or topics associated with Publix grocery stores, and that will primarily be made up of the 2.8M people who like Publix’s Facebook page.

4. Behaviors
This one is a little more nebulous, since we don’t really know how Facebook assigns some of these behaviors. But, if you trust what they’re doing, they can be very useful since it includes targets like “New vehicle shoppers,” “Frequent travelers,” and “Heavy US TV Viewers” among many others.

Also note that this is where Facebook hides their somewhat controversial “Multicultural Affinity” targeting option, which is basically just a code word for race. That’s gotten them in trouble in the past when ProPublica realized you could create housing ads that excluded people based on their race, which is blatantly illegal under the Fair Housing Act.

Ok breather time!
The four options above are all nice, but they are still going to primarily work as awareness or “top of the funnel” advertising for most companies. Even with all that targeting That’s why you see major CPG companies like P&G suggesting that targeting wasn’t a big win for them.

If you want to get into direct response advertising, you’ll have much more success with the final 3 targeting options.

5. Pixel Tracking
This one takes a little development work, but if you put the Facebook pixel on your website then you can target users who have (or have not) taken specific actions. In a perfect world Google and Facebook would get over their petty squabbles and have a simple tag template in Google Tag Manager, but for the time being you’ll be stuck using the actual code snippet.

If you want your users to download a report, you can build an audience of people who have visited the page but not downloaded. If you want to introduce readers to the store side of your content & commerce website you can build an audience of folks who visit /articles/ pages but not /shop/ pages.

6. Custom Audiences
If you want to go one step further than just people who take actions on your site, you can target actual people using their email addresses or phone numbers. This can be a very powerful targeting option since you know exactly who you’re talking to.

These audiences can be as broad as anyone on your newsletter, or it can be just users who have purchased blue winter coats in the last 12 months (since I assume you’re collecting emails at checkout).

Secret hack for multi-channel retailers: Amazon obfuscates the email address they give you so that you don’t start marketing to those customers. But they give you the customers’ phone numbers in the order export file. You can build a custom audience with that information and try to convert buyers over to your first-party website.

7. Look-a-like Audiences
And the last option, which basically takes the first 4 and turns them into some Facebook-powered intelligence. You give Facebook and audience (people who like your page, people who interacted with a previous ad or post, people on a specific custom audience list, etc) and then tell Facebook to go find more people like them.

You have the option to pick folks anywhere from the 1% of the population most like your existing audience, up to 10%. On top of that you can do additional targeting to say something like “give me the 1% of men aged 25–50 in Georgia who are most like the people on my ‘best customer’ email list.”

THIS is really how you ramp up prospecting for new customers on Facebook.

Now, with all that in mind let’s touch on the Russian ad situation. Mark Zuckerberg seems to be a little upset at how much attention this is drawing, but we’re going to do this as a marketing exercise not a political one so hopefully he won’t start ignoring my calls.

Rob Kischuk of Converge put out a great article that gets in to the whats and hows of the Russian ad buys. This touches on a lot of the above, and then gives 3 key parts of the Russian strategy for potentially swaying opinion:

  1. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Facebook uses a mixture of algorithms and human reviewers to decide whether an ad goes out to the public, so the Russians just kept submitting the ads until they got a reviewer who would say ‘yes’ to them.
  2. Don’t worry about the text rule. Facebook no longer rejects ads outright for too much text, they just throttle the impressions you get. However, if people engage with and share the ad, Facebook will stop caring about image-to-text ratios and will happily spread it out (and take your money).
  3. Don’t show the ad to just anybody. This is the only part of the strategy I would advise a normal marketer to take. But yes, they did and you should target, target, target, target, and target.

On top of all that, I think there are some important things to break out inside #3. I’ve touched on some of these before back in issue 5 of Proper Tack but let’s revisit those and continue to build on them.

The most powerful thing a political campaign can do is connect emails to the voter list. That allows you to target your digital advertising to likely voters, or people who you think you can turn in to likely voters.

One of the ways I suggested you could do this is through donations, ecommerce, and, most interesting to me, petition signings. That last one allows you to not just get name, email and zip code, which you can use to match almost anyone to a voter file, but also issue preference.

For instance, take this thread of tweets from Gavin Sheridan.

This Facebook page has almost 3M likes, is connected to multiple other pages and website that have a similar far-right focus, and is actively pushing people to sites collecting email signatures on petitions.

It’s not hard to imagine how these sites could function as a part of a party or campaign apparatus. Namely, they build a list of Americans, start to identify their issue preferences, and then give the digital marketing teams a direct way to target them for advertising in the future.

I don’t know what the answer to this is. Maybe it’s limiting reach and ad spend for pages that aren’t verified with a personal ID or business license so you can track the spend to a specific entity. You can argue that this would have major implications for speech in countries where the political class cracks down on dissenting views, but Facebook and other tech firms have already made it clear that they’re more than willing to capitulate to a government’s demands if it means keeping that population in their user numbers.

Whatever it is, there’s not an easy answer. But I bet it’s not so hard that a company that made $10B in profit last year can’t figure it out.

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