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Thursday, May. 8, 2008

Facebook Ads Prove That “Targeting” Demographics Is Silly

By Robert Gorell
May 8th, 2008

Social media advertising isn’t just another fad. With all of that juicy customer info we give social networks each day, for free, businesses of all sizes are lining up to cash in by offering the right ad to the right person, guaranteed — or so they think.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Here’s the promise Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, made to media buyers last November:

With Facebook you will be able to select exactly the audience you want to reach, and we will only show your ads to them. We know exactly what gender someone is, what activities they are interested in, their location, country, city or town, interests, gender [etcetera, etcetera] . . .

Several months later, this is the result:

image of facebook social ad

Apparently, David at Broccoli & Cheese wasn’t a good target for this ad:

As you read this, thousands of 18-34 year old men are watching Tampax commercials. Not because they want to, but because television is an imprecise medium that makes it hard to get the right ads to the right people. As a result, we’ve been conditioned over decades to expect irrelevance at the commercial break.

But wasn’t the Internet, and in particular, social media, supposed to turn that tide? Take Facebook—they know more about my day-to-day life than my parents do, and surely enough to serve me ads that I’d find remotely useful. But they’re dropping the ball. Big time.

[...] Will someone out there besides Google please get their [expletive] together?

If MarineCFO’s Chief Financial Officer is reading this, chance are s/he’s not thrilled with Facebook.

To be clear, I don’t think MarineCFO was silly to place this ad. It’s just that, like me and perhaps even you, we’re easily seduced by the promise of demographics. We like to think it’s sufficient.

Demographics are like catnip for marketers.

They make being wrong feel so right. They always seem to have the right answer. They help us justify lazy decisions. They give us such wonderful opportunities to prejudge our audience — specifically, how they define themselves and what they want to hear, see or read — based on a few scant details. Yet by themselves, demographics can never be accountable for anything because they’re based on correlation, not causality.

Marketers, and the advertising platforms that prey on them, need to look beyond the logistics of ad placement and stop thinking of “targeting” as a one-way, two-dimensional process. Demographics are important, but without the context of psychographics [define], they’re quite often useless. To paraphrase Mark Twain, to a media buyer armed with vague demographic data, everyone looks like a target.

I wonder where and how these ads would have been placed had they planned the campaign with personas.

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Comments (27)

  1. yes, it’s true that demographics alone are not good enough, that’s why facebook allows you use keywords that extracts relevant information from people’s interests, so it very well may be that the dude whose page is listed above is actually interested in fishing.

  2. I can’t figure out why they don’t do the bag of rocks simple thing and link search to ads, especially in an environment like Facebook where the ads are generally unwelcome. Keying ad display to search guarantees relevancy…

  3. Furthermore, are there any controls on who you can and can’t target, at an advertising level?

    Either their targeting system is complete rubbish, or there are dating sites targeting married men. And they can’t even say they don’t have the data because my wife is also on Facebook and it says right on my profile that we’re married.

    (This is far worse on MySpace, one of the main reasons I’ve pretty much stopped using their service.)

  4. Sergei,

    This guy, David, says in his post that it’s totally off. I also know him and, suffice it to say, he’s not interested in fishing, doesn’t run a marine business, nor is anything remotely like that listed on his Facebook profile.

  5. James,

    I’ve actually noticed that MySpace is slightly better at demographic targeting. The difference, though, is that they tend to serve many more — and tackier — banners that are still irrelevant to me. But maybe that has more to do with the companies who advertise on MySpace. I’m not sure. But, yeah, MySpace continues to suffer brand erosion due to push advertising fatigue.

    Generally, the ads on Facebook are less intrusive, which is nice, but I’m not sure how affective they are. Virgin America did it right with this banner ad, but that one would have been effective wherever they put it because it had more to do with geographical targeting (i.e., they knew the person getting it lived in New York, and thus could fly Virgin America), and they planned the entire experience from banner, to landing page, to checkout.

    To answer your question, though, I’m not exactly sure what sorts of controls Facebook gives to advertisers. If anyone reading this has a good idea, I hope they’ll comment and share it with us.

  6. Facebooks ability to target any specific demographic is always going to be limited by 1) people’s reluctance to give too much accurate information about themselves for fear of a barrage of advertising, and 2) Advertisers assumptions about how little they know their audience when positioning a message based on scant details about a person’s general demographic profile based on 2 or 3 general factors.

  7. Technically, They could not do very specific and comprehensive targeting like marineCFO, but as for marriage and other clearly stated information, surely Facebook can take advantage of them. Basically I think the situation James Lamb mentioned is caused by advertisers; They could have not made a very specific targeting; Probably this advertiser supposed some percent of married persons could still want to date~ lol~

    Agree with you guys, the Ads in myspace are kind of annoying, which is overstuffed with banners; while in facebook are kind of subtle.But it seems that Facebook could not have salesperson while I can only customize my ads in their Ad Center, totally Ads DIY.

    And I think it’s good to have branding pages in Facebook or myspace; You can have thouands of friends even if you can not afford customized page, which could costs you several thousand dollars per month. You can seed your brand and maintian Customer Relationship by exclusive and best deals, hot topics. People could keep checking and spreading your deals throughout their network; but it will take some time to build the relationship and their habits to interact with your page and brand.
    Get more ideas through taking a look at Victoria’s or Sponsored)

  8. I have found facebook advertsing to be extremely successful in the UK and the ads I get displayed have been relevant 90% of the time, things like rugby and family guy ads both things in my profile. Also for one client that was looking to target married women in there 30s we had particularly good success. It could be that Marine CFO just where very broad with there targeting.

    Unless you are going after something that is listed in someones interests, such as a TV show, sporting actvity or band it is very difficult as an advertiser to target any further.

  9. I also seem to be one of the the few who are well targeted by facebook. As a mid twenties female i frequently get advertising for weight loss, cosmetic enhancement and clothing etc, when i changed my status to engaged this advertising shifted slightly to wedding venue /outfits/planners services. Whats more the advertising often links to the specific applications i have added, such as TV shows, environmental issues, music or films.

    True enough the advertisements aren’t entirely relevant or of interest but they are targeted to the information i provide on my profile, without knowing my shopping habits too it would be difficult for advertisers to get any further i agree.

  10. Here’s the core issue: While a poorly-targeted TV ad reflects badly on the advertiser (and not the network), a poorly-targeted Facebook ad reflects badly on the network (and not the advertiser). The reason is that Facebook integrates advertising WITHIN their programming (my news feed) while the TV network traditionally keeps it separate (product placement aside).

    In this sense, Facebook has a much greater responsibility than TV networks to make their ads relevant. When they don’t (as in the above example) they compromise their product experience, and damage their brand, all in exchange for a few pennies per CPM.

  11. Well, I tried a little experiment – hitting hitting “Refresh”
    brought up the following ads on my facebook page:

    (male, married, 34, Living in Alberta, into marketing, fitness & motorcycles:)

    Pizza 73
    Vonage “v-phone” ad
    Prince Edward Island Travel promo
    Telus High speed internet free laptop offer
    Alberta’s next top model
    Men over 30 – fill out this survey
    Penticton Condominium beach vacation homes – what’s your IQ?
    Self help course in Red Deer (my city)
    Social Media seminar in Calgary
    Free trip draw from
    HSBC Bank direct savings account

    From a relevance standpoint – nothing here seems wrongly targeted, although most are some fairly global products: pizza, travel, etc.

    I have to say the geo targeting is spot on – great! and the social media seminar in my area was absolutely relevant.

    Perhaps the original post was more of a fluke than the norm, I have to say from my viewpoint, Facebook is doing a pretty good job with ad targeting.

  12. Hmm… I just got a Facebook ad for Marine CFO as well. Something’s fishy on their ad platform.

  13. As a matter of both principle and practice, I ignore all advertisements in Facebook. That’s not why I’m there. If a line does catch my eye – and then I see “advertisement” I immediately move on to something else.

    Just because they can doesn’t mean we care. (and that goes for all types of advertising – including those silly postcard sized ads on the back of public restroom stall doors.)

  14. My boyfriend, who is listed as being in a relationship, regularly gets ads for dating services, and the like. Thanks, facebook! (And to all those that will say: “Well…do you know what he’s doing on facebook…?”: Yeah, and I can assure you, this is totally random, and not due to him being a “fan” of any business of that type, or anything of that sort!)

  15. Commenting on what Mary brought up, I also typically ignore facebook ads. Obviously we are not the “norm”. But because facebook is a free service, I do wonder about the conversion vs. cost of this type of advertising. People are looking for friends and tinkering with their page, do they really want to buy something? Is the timing right?

  16. interesting reading. i find the cost of facebook advertising campaigns quickly adds up.

  17. I’ve found Facebook to be quite accurate with its ads. I haven’t found too much I’ve been interested in, but it’s all relevant to what’s on my profile. Google AdSense can do it with content that’s not locked into a formula – how hard can it be for Facebook? I can’t imagine it is, so I have faith in Facebook’s ability to target ads.

    This leaves me thinking that our friends at MarineCFO may have targeted too broadly and skipped out on psychographics.

  18. [...] Robert over at GrokDotCom picked this up, and some of the comments over there got me thinking. The bottom line [...]

  19. Ditto earlier comments – I doubt they used their demographics fully. Probably were just doing men, age x-y

  20. It is slowly getting better as advertisers start to understand it 1 year on but still there are failures as in any ad campaign.

  21. Why you delete my comments.

  22. @Bakugan shouldn’t it be “why did you delete my comments?”

  23. I only advertise on FaceBook because I got some free advertising credits from my GoDaddy account. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have even done any FaceBook ads.

  24. especially in like wonder about the conversion vs. cost of this type of an environment still there are advertising Facebook where the ads are advertisers start to understand it 1 year on but failures as generally

  25. I think Facebook is getting better. We can keep an eye on it.


  26. @David I understand no problem:) This sentence in the error call:)

  27. @ Julian, Facebook may be more beautiful but shut down after a point. At the very least be prevented in many countries. Facebook’s privacy problems.

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