What’s Really Behind Those Targeted Ads on Facebook?

Image of person being targeted in a crowdI’m attending my high school reunion in a few weeks and I need a fabulous dress. So I’ve been spending time on various retailer sites to find the perfect outfit. Of course I visited Nordstrom.com and found some great dresses, including a stunning, little, black dress by Ralph Lauren. Imagine my surprise when I clicked over to Facebook.com and found a Nordstrom ad that featured the very dress I was looking at. I shrugged it off as coincidence; what retailer doesn’t advertise its fabulous black dresses?

A couple of days later, I found a gorgeous, purple dress on Nordstrom.com. Again, a Nordstrom ad on Facebook featured the exact same dress. Okay, now this can’t be coincidence. Purple, really? I had read about Facebook sharing cookies with retailers but I needed more info. We Facebook users have known for a while that any information we give to the social network can be used to send us targeted advertising. For a while, I was getting ads based on my age. Then I noticed that even my posts seemed to be getting indexed; I mentioned Downtown Abbey in a post; next thing I know, I’m getting an ad for a Downton Abbey-themed trip to England. It seems that earlier this year, Facebook branched out and expanded it advertising capabilities by merging its own data with data from third parties.

  • Earlier this year, Facebook announced deals with Datalogix, Epsilon and Acxiom, consumer data companies, or companies that track consumer purchasing data from rewards cards, among other things. Facebook users are matched with data from these companies so that Facebook can present targeted ads. For example, if my Giant rewards card shows that I buy a lot of diapers, Facebook might show me ads for more diapers or other baby products.
  • Through a partnership with BlueKai, retailers can add code to their websites to set cookies that Facebook can read. The cookies tell Facebook what you were looking at on the retailer site, for example, and display targeted ads based on your previous viewing history. (Aha! I bet this is what Nordstrom is using.)
  • Last Fall, Facebook invited retailers to submit the email addresses of its customers. Facebook matched the emails against its database and then displayed ads on behalf of the retailers.

We all know this is going to get a lot worse. Facebook already knows who our friends area, where we go, what we watch, what we eat, who we love. If you’re creeped out by all this, what can you do?

  • My friend and privacy expert Shaun Dakin recommends Abine, which lets you create disposable email addresses, phone numbers, and credit cards so that Facebook and retailers can’t match you based on your personal information.
  • Matrix Group Network Administrator Rich Frangiamore recommends Ghostery, which is a browser plug-in that tells you about all the tracking elements on web pages that you visit. Ghostery also lets you block specific scripts.
  • I like to browse in incognito mode in Chrome. When I do this, any cookies saved in my browser are deleted when I close my windows and pages I visit aren’t recorded in my browser history.

The thing about targeted ads is this: sometimes they feel creepy and an invasion of my privacy, while other times, I am grateful for the spot-on recommendations. I guess the trick for advertisers is to find the right balance so that customers like me welcome the personalization. What do you think of all this targeted advertising?

5 thoughts on “What’s Really Behind Those Targeted Ads on Facebook?

  1. I tend to be in the ‘mildly annoyed’ camp with targeted advertising. I know it’s partly my fault for not using things like Ghostery, but I’m not so put off that I’ll reject the service I’m using.

    I’m also a terrible target audience for all online ads. I don’t need AdBlocker – I just ignore ads.

    Thanks for doing the round up on what Facebook’s doing with our data and third parties, though! I hadn’t examined those, yet.

  2. I’m usually glad to see that familiar item that I forgot to buy. I tend to do more upfront research and make uses of things like wish lists so that I can “let it sit” for a little while before I pull the trigger and buy a product. I’m the perfect audience for these targeted ads, as well as follow- up emails when I’ve abandoned the cart.

    At the same time, I am a bit uncomfortable with leaving a byte trail across the internet of everything I’ve done. So I may periodically do a mass delete of cookies just to throw off the big data monsters.

  3. There is another way to generally protect yourself from this.

    Whenever you leave facebook, log out rather than just navigating away, and then in your browser, delete all your facebook.com cookies. That way, when you visit sites with facebook tags in them – they will not be able to connect the visit with your FB profile.

    Or you could just leave Facebook.

Comments are closed.