Aren’t you a Facebook Advertising henchman?
First off, let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, I manage high-level Facebook advertising campaigns. Yes, I conspire with brands and businesses alike to engage in sinister marketing activities meant to deplete you of your hard-earned savings on products and services that you merely somewhat desire, not genuinely need. Yes, I’m the one who knocks on your door when you see an ad online.
All hysteria and jokes aside, the recent news that Facebook tracks your offline activity seems to be making the rounds online. As a result, many users are panicking about the notion of Zuckerberg and his assortment of humanoid drones spying on us and violating our civil liberties. Amidst all the confusion, I feel like there’s something pretty evident to state: Facebook is only slightly spying on you to improve ad preferences, of course.
So..what exactly is Facebook tracking?
Tweets, blogs, and images such as the one below are circulating social networks and instructing users on how to delete their off-Facebook activity and prevent the social network from leveraging that data for monetary gains.
Interestingly enough, it was the note regarding the connection to banking apps that galvanized me to run to the keyboard and furiously write about this topic. The implication that Facebook is sinking its teeth into your most private moments online and stealing personal information is somewhat misleading. This confusion leads to users believing that Facebook is striving to save every last bit of information regarding your financial well-being.
It seems a tad ridiculous, right? Well, not really, but yes. That mangled answer exhibits the inherently creepy yet strategic nature of Facebook’s offline activity tracking. For the most part, the offline activity tracking Facebook employs right now is purely in the interest of optimizing advertising delivery to make more money. No, Facebook isn’t scouring your bank app for pertinent details to steal money from your bank account. Even if they were able to scan your bank statements and extract credit card numbers covertly, that would say more about your bank’s choice in technology than it would about Facebook’s deviousness. That information is secure enough to evade Facebook’s grasp but probably still not safe enough to prevent grievous arch enemies from employing the services of serial hackers to torment you from afar. Facebook is pretty explicit about the actions they track:
We receive activity from businesses and organizations who use our business tools so they can better understand how their website, app or ads are performing. We use your activity to show you relevant ads and to suggest things you might be interested in. Examples of interactions include:
- Opened an app
- Logged into app with Facebook
- Visited a website
- Searched for an item
- Added an item to a wishlist
- Added an item to a cart
- Made a purchase
- Made a donation
Businesses and organizations can also send custom interactions that meet certain needs. For example, they may use a custom interaction to create a unique group of customers in order to show them relevant ads.
Why does Facebook care about my purchasing habits?
Let’s paint a picture with a pretty realistic scenario that may or may not happen in the future:
If I were to set up an e-commerce business selling t-shirts with my face on it, one of the first things I would do is get my Facebook ad account prepped. I would then be able to configure my pixel to track all of the following events that occur on my website: page view, category page view, product page view, signup, add to cart, initiated checkout, abandoned cart, purchase, etc. Now, whether that business would be a success or not is dubious at best (who wouldn’t want rock tees with my Canadian mug on it), but this example exhibits why Facebook would want to track all of that data. For example, assume random customers start purchasing custom t-shirts from my online store. Once those users start exhibiting post-purchase dissonance and dissatisfaction with how they spent money, they’ll be seeing ads for similar custom t-shirt businesses or clothing stores in their news feeds. Facebook can use those signals and data points to push ads from related advertisers in my niche to those same customers, banking on increased click-through rates (aka CTR) compared to generic ads. On the flip side, people that abandon the checkout process because my face is too pale may not see ads for e-commerce stores because of their reticence to spend money.
Interestingly enough, you would be surprised as to how many tracking pixels are installed on most websites you visit these days. Anything ranging from basic tracking like Google Analytics to snippets of code from various advertising platforms tracks campaign performance. This level of monitoring also tends to give media buyers strokes when their ROAS goals (return on ad spend) fail to appease clients. Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, Microsoft (Bing ads for the uninitiated), Pinterest, Taboola, Hotjar, etc….all of these are companies and platforms that track your online behaviour in some shape or another. Yes, that’s right, the seemingly innocuous Pinterest can track your activity from pinning wedding dresses to purchasing the hottest products on Etsy. The only thing that makes platforms like Facebook and Google stand out (and Twitter to a lesser extent) is that they have social login features with many applications, allowing them to unearth more of your digital footprint. George Orwell would be proud.
CTR? Abandoned cart? Pixels? What does this have to do with Facebook’s robotic spies?
Tracking these events and interactions within applications can also help Facebook better define your persona for other advertisers. Did you buy shoes? Whoopie! You’re very likely to see more ads in the future for products you’re inclined to purchase. In terms of tracking your shopping activity, the amount of data Facebook can associate with your account is nebulous, as it remains to be seen what exactly Facebook can extract to enhance ad targeting. However, all of this data amalgamation occurs in real-time and with the utmost security, so it’s highly unlikely the engineering ninjas that deftly manage Facebook’s code are spending time judging your latest wine purchase from the SAQ website.
Now, I don’t want it to seem like I’m ardently defending Facebook’s attempt to gather as much data as possible. Still, as an advertiser, I understand why Facebook would try to funnel as much information as possible to their platform. Think about advertising in this way – imagine every single user logging onto Facebook saw the following ads
- Adult diapers
- Medicare insurance for seniors (USA)
- High heels and lingerie
- Hair loss treatments
Considering news feeds display ads every four-five posts, the user experience would be pretty abysmal and likely leave a sour taste in the end user’s mouth. Remember how many people used to complain about TV advertising? Improperly targeted advertising is similar to being force-fed a neverending stream of knockoff Sham WoW ads. That’s not good for anyone. Now, think about exactly why Facebook, and all other online advertising platforms, for that matter, want to personalize ads to your tastes. Increased engagement with brands translates into businesses making more money, resulting in a trifecta of happiness between users, advertisers, and digital companies. In other words, a self-sustaining economy.
OK, but Facebook is storing my credit card numbers, right?
In the end, Facebook engineers aren’t clandestinely logging into your banking account or scrubbing anything at all. It’s highly unlikely your private data is flowing to offshore servers via shady tactics. Facebooks’ pixel merely registers certain events, such as signing up for a service or logging into an app. This information can help businesses target users that exhibit some sort of financial activity online or encourage Mastercard to hit you up with a smorgasbord of ads to infiltrate your daily routine. Once again, a cursory glance at Facebook’s privacy settings explains this in detail:
Sensitive information is prohibited
We prohibit businesses and organizations from sharing sensitive information with us, including health and financial data. If we determine that a business or an organization is violating our terms, we will take action against that business or organization. To see what interactions were shared, you can download your activity details.
Of course, whether Facebook is telling the truth here is unknown, especially with the company’s dalliance with Cambridge Analytica, where millions of users had their information compromised for political advertising. However, it’s in Facebook’s best interest to comply with regulations with governments around the world analyzing the company’s every move, so let’s give Zuckerberg and his cronies the benefit of the doubt in this specific case. Unlike Jesse Eisenberg, following his portrayal of Zuckerberg in The Social Network, there’s a very low possibility that the face of the company will evolve into a real-life version of the Lex Luthor.
OK, cool, but I care more about my privacy. What can I do?
As exhibited above, severing the connection between your offline activity and your social media persona can be done within Facebook’s privacy settings. However, note that your interactions will still be tracked to some extent, but just marked anonymously and will not affect your ad preferences within Facebook. Great. What about other apps and websites?
When it comes to social media and privacy, it’s getting tougher to engage with others online and keep your information completely private. Any page you engage with, regardless of platform, will influence your profile’s persona and personalize the type of advertisements you come across. For people that want to keep their data private, I encourage them to disable Facebooks’ offline activity tracking and take it an extra step by doing the following:
- Search engines: ditch Google and Bing (lol) – DuckDuckGo is where it’s at for privacy enthusiasts. The burgeoning search engine prides itself on keeping your browsing history private, becoming the search engine of choice for the most discreet users out there.
- Social media apps: using your real name? You’ve already lost. Advertising platforms allow companies to upload custom audience lists that contain data of customers. All of this means that if you’ve purchased from a website in the past or filled out a digital form, that company can upload a list containing your information to match you with your social media profiles. All of this is done to enhance ad targeting and reach users that may be similar to you. Creepy, right?
- General websites: have you recently searched for an auto insurance quote? Home insurance? Mortgages? Any form you fill out these days, especially in the United States, is likely managed by a company that’s selling your information to the highest bidder. In some cases, your data is sold on a shared basis, meaning more than one business gets the right to call you at night relentlessly. Can you imagine fielding inbound phone calls from eight insurance companies? It’s hell, trust me.
So…..is Facebook evil or not?
I tend to have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. Their advertising platform is by far the most robust out there within the social media world, providing far more targeting options than its competitors. In my own experience, the “creepiness” of Facebook’s advertising is having the ability to target users with a birthday within seven days. This example represents one of my best-performing health insurance campaigns in the United States, as turning 26 provides Americans with a Special Enrollment Period for ACA insurance. As a result, I’m fielding hundreds of comments from a bunch of 25-year-olds insinuating the page I’m advertising on behalf of is a digital stalker. Fun times, right?
When it comes to privacy and data collection, I understand it’s of the utmost importance to most online users to retain some element of anonymity and prevent their information from being compromised. However, I do feel that there is a significant lack of education about why companies would want to track your online behaviour, whether it’s done surreptitiously or with full transparency. I do think more companies must be honest with how they track your online behaviour, as well as providing end-users with the ability to opt-out of data collection and offline activity tracking.
And on that note, I have some Facebook browsing to do.