How Facebook Ads Are Targeting You

Photo by Curiousmatic, modified using target graphic by Wikimedia.

While you are busy staying connected with friends and family, posting statuses, and liking pictures of people’s babies, Facebook has other plans.

Social media is all about data, data, data, for those behind the scenes. What are your interests, and how can we sell you something? These are the questions companies like Facebook have been asking, and answering by using data to market to users in the most efficient way possible.

Targeting advertising is the reason 20-somethings in relationships are getting engagement ring ads, and why students are getting ads about university housing. They know you better than you think – but how is it done?

How It Works

Firstly, when you (of your own accord, though on Facebook’s insistence) put your interests, age, relationship status, education and location on the social media platform, it makes it very easy for Facebook to determine who you are, what you need, want, and like.

Advertisers can set targeting filters by location, age, and interests – and in advanced mode, education and relationship status – to narrow and deepen their reach to a specified group.


Image courtesy of Beth Canter via Flickr

This goes to show that when you “like” a page on Facebook, you are adding personal data to your profile that will help advertisers target you, and use your data to advertise to others, as well.

This can be great if you are interested in being sold products tailored to your interests, or a pain if you aren’t.

But Wait, There’s More

The Electronic Frontier Foundation tells us that targeted ads are no longer limited to your activity on Facebook – in April of 2013 Facebook partnered with four big data companies (or data brokers) Acxiom, Blue Kai, Epsilon, and Datalogix, to target users based on their purchases both online and via mobile.

Companies approach these data brokers for audience lists; the brokers then compile email lists which they send to Facebook, who reaches into their user database to match email addresses with users, who will then be targeted specifically.

Facebook then aggregates a report to send back to the companies, reporting how well the ads did, including the types, ages, genders of clickers, etc.

BlueKai actually uses tracking cookies, which look up sites visited, the account’s interests, and online purchases from an individual’s browser.

How to Hide

It’s important to understand that advertising is a necessary evil. Without it, Facebook and other social media sites wouldn’t have the income to keep you happy – and you wouldn’t know about the sales at your favorite stores. While targeted ads can be scary in theory, you have the choice to ignore them. Or, you can opt out and hide.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, there is a difficult and multi-step process users can go through in order to “opt out” of each data broker’s website. This process doesn’t guarantee your removal from their database, but should suppress your information from certain uses. Supposedly.

The EFF suggests privacy protection add-ons such as Ghostery and DoNotTrackMe, and recommends users avoid giving personal information such as phone numbers or email addresses to any company.

What are your thoughts? Tweet us @curiousmatic, and feel free to like our page for daily posts of interesting, trustworthy news. 

Jennifer Markert