How targeted are Facebook ads? Not very.

As someone who works in targeted marketing, I was getting a little discouraged by the amount of ads I was receiving on Facebook that were not related to me.  We now work in an era of “big data” – and companies know more and more about us and our habits.  The goal of “big data” is to customize and create one to one marketing messages based on a customers past and future modeled behavior.  A social media site like Facebook knows a lot about me and is all about big data – my family, my education, where I work, family status, etc – yet the ads I get do not feel targeted.  So I set out on a little project to measure the Facebook ads I received in a five-day period, and measure if they were targeted or not.  Marketers use Facebook and advertise on Facebook, to reach an audience that is highly targeted – or at least that is the goal.  By advertising on Facebook, brands can choose who sees the ads based on the criteria they set.  So 1 of 3 things is happening here:

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1. Brands are not targeting or developing targeting criteria effectively

2. Digital agencies buying sponsored ads on behalf of their clients are not targeting effectively and wasting their brands money

3. Facebook is not serving up the right ads to the right people

Or it could be a combination of the 3.  Let’s take a deeper dive.

Methodology: This was not a scientific research exercise, more of exploratory observation, but I do have quantitative results over a 5 day period.  Basically, I took a screen shot of every sponsored post I received from a brand I do not follow, and measured it as targeted (Something I may be interested in based on my income, family status, and interests) or non-targeted (anything I would never consider buying because it did not relate to anything I am interested in.  Pretty simple.  I only looked at ads on a mobile device, because I no longer use Facebook desktop.  So the ads were all delivered via mobile.  Those sidebar ads no one looks at were not included – these were main sponsored posts in the main feed.

The Results: I received 35 sponsored ads in my news feed from July 6 to July 10, 2013.  Of these, only 6 total were what I would consider targeted.  The rest was what I would call “daytime TV” or cheap ads that were not targeted at all and the type of ads that should be running in mass channels vs targeted channels.  The very discouraging part is that out of the 6 ads, 3 were for the Honda Odyssey, so in reality only 4 companies were able to target me on Facebook over a 5 day period using sponsored ads.

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The Few that Were Targeted: 

1. Honda Odyssey  x 3: During the 5 day time period, I received an ad for the 2014 Honda Odyssey 3 times.  While I would never buy a Mini-van, the ads felt targeted because I do have a family of 4, and I am their targeted demographic in age and family status.  I have to give it to Honda here for a job well done in reaching their desired audience using Facebook.


2. RMD Advertsing: I don’t know if this was pure luck or not, but an ad agency called RMD Advertising was looking for an Account Executive in Columbus working on food.  This agency is relatively close, and I have 6 years of ad agency experience working mostly with food, as well as 5 years of corporate food marketing experience.  So I don’t know their criteria –  but they did well here in finding me and serving up this ad.


3. Rockstar Games: I am a gamer at heart, and this ad caught my eye.  I’ve outgrown these games, but it still felt targeted as a gamer to me so it goes in the targeted bucket.


4. Kapitall: This was the ad that was most interesting to me.  I am interested in gamification and investing, and this ad is about a new gamified investing experience.  I not only engaged with this ad, I signed up for an account to check it out.  Very well done and well targeted Facebook advertising.


Samples of 29 Non-Targeted Ads: These are just a few of the non targeted Facebook ads I received.  None of them were related to my age, income, education, family status or interests.

1. For-Profit Online Colleges: My Facebook profile lists both my undergrad degree and masters, so why school’s would target me seems a little off and wasteful.  Sure, there might be some people out there looking to get multiple masters degrees, but overall I feel this is a big time targeting fail.  I received 9 total ads for these online schools – a complete waste of ad dollars in my opinion.  But hey – I get a free iPad if I sign up right?


2. Hormone Replacement: Facebook knows how old I am, and this ad just felt offensive and non-targeted to me.  It seems like this is a specialized target and I am not sure if Facebook is the right media for this product.  It was not only non targeted – it made me feel older than I am and angry I received it.  AARP next?


3. Hannah Claire: This one stumps me.  At current stock prices, Facebook is worth around $65 billion dollars.  Yet, I am receiving ads from a local artist named Hannah Claire.  Nothing against her, but her page had around 100 likes.  So I have to question the amount she is paying to target me, and is that enough to make Facebook a $65 billion dollar company.  I was really stumped by this one and why I got it.


4. Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans: I really have no idea what in my profile says I might be a pagan.


So – again – not a large enough sample size to say that overall Facebook ads are not targeted, but I did reach out on Twitter and there seems to be agreement about facebooks targeting.  I have contacts with no children getting ads for baby clothes, and contacts with no pets relieving pet food posts.  So overall, I feel that Facebook, agencies, and brands need to work together to get better and more relevant messages out to their customers.  It is not like they don’t have the data to do it..

Do you feel the ads you receive on Facebook are targeted?

Chris Lovett