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Facebook Ad Targeting: From 2007 To 1984

Originally published in MediaPost, the full column’s in the extended entry.

2007 tinted with shades of

Two weeks ago, we explored how Facebook serves as a
search engine for marketers
. While I think many of the comparisons between
Facebook and Google in the press are overblown, Facebook’s ad platform draws
inspiration from Google AdWords and AdSense. Facebook advertising is
auction-based and keyword-targeted, and marketers can bid for impressions or
clicks. It’s also at its core, like Google, a self-service platform designed so
that the long tail of advertisers can take part at a minimal cost of entry, but
few marketers will want to brave it alone. What remains unanswered is how
effective Facebook ads are compared to other channels.

While exploring Facebook’s ad platform, I decided to run an
experiment with the goal of netting some candid feedback from Facebook members.
I created an ad campaign targeting fans of George Orwell’s "1984", which
Facebook said opened the door to a pool of over 210,000 people over age 18 who
explicitly mentioned it in their interests on their Facebook page. My ad’s
headline was, "1984 Fan, how’s this ad?" and the body read,
"You’re being targeted as a fan of 1984. What do you think of that? I want
to hear from you on my blog." A post on my
served as the landing page, which further asked visitors, "Does
this creep you out at all? Is this just how the Web works? What’s your

Facebook ultimately pulled the plug on all the various iterations
of the ad I attempted to run. The automated message told me, "This ad has
been disabled and should not be run again on the site under any
circumstances," and then referred to my "violations" as
"abusive" (ouch). Even setting up the ad proved unnecessarily
challenging, with an error message once telling me, "The text has too many
capital letters" when I had all of three capitals in the body. Still, the
ad described above did run for several hours, getting me over 48,000
impressions and 273 clicks for a 0.57% click-through rate at an 18 cents
cost-per-click and $1.05 CPM (marketers can choose CPC or CPM at the start of
the campaign).

Now it’s time to let the Facebook members speak for themselves.
This is not meant to be a representative sample of Facebook members, as there’s
something that drew them to share their interest in "1984" in the first
place, but their attitudes covered a broad spectrum. Some excerpted responses
are below, and you can read all of
them on the blog
(some of the longer or omitted posts are provocative, hilarious,
or otherwise great reads). So, Facebook members, what do you think of the
site’s ad targeting?


I’m not too concerned. After all, I did choose to make my information public.

I chose to make this information public even though I know it is probably being
data mined by an NSA database.

While I know that nothing is private online, it bugs me that I have to think
about what I’m typing into my interests. More importantly, I worry I’ll start
getting shitty ads loosely based on an attempt to match my interests and/or
annoying ads that try to grab my attention through animations/flashing.

Gmail’s method of delivering ads is a little more touchy because it mines data
from "private" emails. However, Facebook’s new socially networked,
targeted ad system is merely making use of data that someone is voluntarily
making public…

I’m not concerned at all. I’m a graphic design major and I understand that is
how advertising is supposed to work.

Not to sound crackpotish, but this is rather disturbing. As a fan of
"1984," the last thing I want is someone knowing all about me… Not
everyone on facebook can look at your profile, it’s limited to friends and your
network… so please don’t respond by saying that if you put your info up there
then you want the world to know or no longer value privacy.

Not really creepy as much as inevitable.

You succeeded in getting me to click through on an ad, a rare accomplishment
for sure. Of course, had you been looking for anything more than an opinion,
say "1984 fan: have you read Brave New World? Buy it here!" I
wouldn’t have gone near the ad.

I think it’s a great idea for them to target us in this way. It’s not like
we’re compelled to click on any ad, and it’s not like we’re really giving away
"personal" information. They can make better money, which means a
better website for us.

…If I’m going to have to see, watch, and listen to ads anyway, then they may
as well be targeted to me about stuff that I like.

…This instance of being able to identify users based on their interests is
nothing shocking, although I only clicked this link because it was not an ad.

I’m not sure that I’m creeped out about it … I guess I expect it, given that
I am putting information out there. It’s like if I’m at a store and I fill out
a survey or something, and then they send me coupons in the mail. I chose to
put the information out there.

Some have privacy concerns, but I say F*** that, I’m an open book and I’ll
leave out what may harm me, but I’ll be myself and let others make what they
want of me.

I actually feel kind of special. To be honest, I never click ads, and I clicked
this one, and I’m pretty satisfied. On a more generalized scope though, of
course it’s a little disturbing, but we caused it.

…Capitalism is capitalism. In a way it’s good, because I’m seeing
advertisements about things I already like and don’t have to ignore another
flashing auto insurance banner.

I think that people who don’t think Facebook is extremely creepy lack any kind
of foresight whatsoever… A good marketer with a background in psychology is
going to be able to manipulate the easy targets extremely effectively–beyond
anything we’ve seen so far. [Ed.: Did he know I have a psych degree?]
"Capitalism is capitalism" has never been an effective argument for
letting people exploit others or do things that are clearly harmful to society.

As for me: I’m in the Not Creepy camp. But then, I’m a
marketer. Does a butcher object to a sharper cleaver?

The butcher doesn’t object, but then again, the butcher never has
to worry about going under the knife. Marketers, however, are consumers too. As
I was writing this column, I was also planning my December wedding and saw an
ad on Facebook for groomsmen gifts, undoubtedly targeted to my profile that
says I’m engaged. I clicked the ad and shopped around for a few minutes. If I
had seen more ads like that on other sites the past several months, it would
have helped with my countless wedding planning needs.

To date, the only ads related to my wedding that I found relevant
enough to click were, fittingly, running on search engines. If Facebook is
ushering in 1984, then I can’t wait for 1985. Facebook’s members, however, are
of many minds about it, and they — we — will ultimately decide Facebook’s

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Comments to: Facebook Ad Targeting: From 2007 To 1984
  • Avatar
    November 13, 2007

    Even Orwell fans not creeped out by profile targeting
    I absolutely LOVE this test that David Berkowitz ran with Facebook’s profile-targeted ads. Those ads allow marketers (or any individual with a credit card and a hankering for clicks… David is apparently both!) to target ads at FB member’s interests.


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