Facebook Ad Targeting: From 2007 To 1984

Is Facebook's advertising platform in 2007 tinted with shades of "1984"?

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 blog 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 take?"



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?

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

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

Mary: Ads like that creep me out, because it feels like "they" know too much about me, but I'm not going to stop using the service even if I'm just a guinea pig for marketing tools. What a scary thought. I think I'm going to delete everything from my Facebook!

Eric: 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.

Justin: 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...

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

Chris: 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.

Jon: Not really creepy as much as inevitable.

Gary: 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.

Jack: 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.

Nick: ...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.

Alan: ...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.

Marleah: 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.

Marty: 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.

Elise: 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.

Dave: ...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.

AJ: 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.

Jeff: 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 future.

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