The Chutzpah of Facebook's 'Jewdar'

I swore I wasn't going to write about Facebook again this week. Then a Facebook ad started up with the name-calling again. It wasn't a bad name, or inaccurate, but such ads do have a knack for getting noticed.
From the responses to last week's column, people really don't like getting called fat on Facebook - or bald, lazy, or desperately single. Amanda P. commented on the post, "As a 22 year old female, I get really tired of seeing the engagement, 'tired of being fat at 22,' handbag and shoe advertisements."

What makes Facebook so interesting is that while it can be used for large-scale campaigns to target millions of users, it's also simple for any advertiser to create a targeted campaign for a few dollars. That can lead to some surprises, like what I encountered this week.

The ad's subject called out, "Hey Jew." I was caught off-guard by the supposition from this marketer, which was hawking "adventure travel that's worth the schlep!" For self-service Facebook ads, most commonly used by smaller advertisers, you can't target by religion (more targeting options are available when spending enough for full service), but you can include keywords that relate to it, as expressed by what users mention in their interests on their profiles. It's a mixed bag of keyword targeting options for religion. You can target people who mention "Islam" but not "Muslim," "Hindi" but not "Hindu," and "Jesus" and "Buddha" but not "Muhammad." A swath of keywords incorporating Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism nets about 560,000 U.S. users, a small fraction of Facebook's audience.



Yet I don't mention anything about Judaism on my profile. There's no sign of the words "Jew," "Jewish," or "Judaism" (which reach a combined 67,000 users) or even "Israel" (which would up the total to 139,000). My profile shares a ton of information, though I generally keep religion and politics off it. My name and picture are prominent; it's not like I'm trying to hide my identity to get into a country club. But how did Facebook, or at least one marketer on Facebook, finger me? What kind of Jewdar was at work?

I started exploring the mystery on Twitter and then on my blog, which includes a snapshot of the ad. I wrote, "Some plausible theories are that the marketer used some combination of targeting around my city (New York), alma mater (Binghamton) and entertainment interests ('The Daily Show,' 'Seinfeld,' 'Everything Is Illuminated')." I misspoke, as you can't target by alma mater with self-service. Targeting my location and those combined interests would net 46,000 people -- though most of course wouldn't be Jewish.

I then thought out of the lox, I mean box, a little, positing theories about Jewhavioral targeting algorithms. Adam Broitman chimed in, "Definitely Jewhavioral... It actually uses macaroons instead of typical third party cookies." Others wondered if Facebook allowed targeting by surname. Alex Sicre added, "I am listed as an Agnostic and have never seen any 'Hey Non-believer' ads." My wife, a bit jealous that I was being profiled, told me, "I never got the 'Hey Jew.' Is it because I'm from Dallas?" She has a point -- my grandmother doesn't believe Cara's Jewish, so why should Facebook?

The real answer behind all this is somewhat anti-climactic. It's true that the advertiser, Katan Adventures, was using self-service ads to reach "Jews and friends of the Jew," as it notes on its site. There was also some basic targeting, though the net was cast wider than I expected.

A Katan representative emailed me, "I assume you are from NY? In order to reach Jews who haven't listed their religion on Facebook (which, by the way, is the vast majority) we run ads in metro areas with large Jewish populations and try to grab their attention with ridiculous lines such as 'Hey Jew,' but we obviously get a lot of wasted clicks with this strategy as well. And some angry emails. Seinfeld fans is a good idea though. And maybe Zabar's fans, but I'm sure that is a small group."

Most marketers aren't going to follow Katan's lead verbatim, though the traditional ad model is to knowingly waste the vast majority of impressions while trying to reach a very specific target. Katan's experience also offers a few reminders when advertising on Facebook:

1) Self-service targeting options are limited to begin with. You can't target by religion, or surname, or Upper West Side market preference.
2) Much of your target audience may be incognito. Sure, I'm a stereotype, a bookish New Yorker who likes Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, and Woody Allen ("Annie Hall" is listed as a favorite film), but I don't use the J-word. You're going to have to either live with that or make some sweeping assumptions, as Katan did.
3) Facebook may not be the most efficient marketing channel. It's one thing to know your audience is on Facebook. It's another to decide that's where it's best to reach them.

The most amazing thing about Facebook is that anyone with $5 can launch a campaign like this, democratizing media in a way that follows Google's footsteps in empowering the long tail of advertisers. Clearly, sometimes that power goes to their heads.

Now, someone just needs to figure out how to target Pastafarians.

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