Reader Query: Do You Feel Facebook Ads Target You Accurately?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Readers will be aware that at Naked Capitalism we’re quite skeptical of claims from Silicon Valley behemoths; see Hubert Horan’s (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and) nine parts-and counting series on Uber and its unicorn-level valuation, as well as the continuing stories filed under “The Bezzle” in Water Cooler. And so, speaking of Silicon Valley behemoths, Facebook.

This brief post won’t address Facebook as a social phenomenon, let alone its valuation. What I do want to do is get an anecdotal sense — yes, anecdotal, but in the NC commentariat, anecdotes approach the level of Clifford Geertz’s thick description — of how well Facebook’s advertising works (and thus how reliable claims about its advertising metrics are). First, I’ll set the scene by asking what business Facebook is in; then I’ll look at some problems with that business; and then I’ll turn the floor over to you.

First, what business is Facebook in? To answer, let’s take a gander at Facebook’s 10-K statement at the SEC (“For the fiscal year ended December 31, 2016”), since Facebook is a publicly traded company. I’m no expert in reading 10Ks, but Item I is “Business.” And for comparison purposes, I’ll provide the same information from the 10-K for the New York Times (“For the fiscal year ended December 25, 2016”):

  Facebook 10-K New York Times 10-K

Our mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

Our top priority is to build useful and engaging products that enable people to connect and share through mobile devices, personal computers, and other surfaces. We also help people discover and learn about what is going on in the world around them, enable people to share their opinions, ideas, photos and videos, and other activities with audiences ranging from their closest friends to the public at large, and stay connected everywhere by accessing our products

We are a global media organization focused on creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news and information. Our continued commitment to premium content and journalistic excellence makes The New York Times brand a trusted source of news and information for readers and viewers across various platforms.
Revenues We generate substantially all of our revenue from selling advertising placements to marketers. Our ads let marketers reach people based on a variety of factors including age, gender, location, interests, and behaviors. Marketers purchase ads that can appear in multiple places including on Facebook, Instagram, and third-party applications and websites. We generate revenues principally from circulation and advertising. Circulation revenue is derived from the sale of subscriptions to our print, web and mobile products and single-copy sales of our print newspaper. Advertising revenue is derived from the sale of our advertising products and services on our print, web and mobile platforms.
Metrics The numbers for our key metrics, which include our DAUs [Daily Active Users], MAUs [Monthly Active Users], and average revenue per user (ARPU), are calculated using internal company data based on the activity of user accounts. While these numbers are based on what we believe to be reasonable estimates of our user base for the applicable period of measurement, there are inherent challenges in measuring usage of our products across large online and mobile populations around the world. In addition, we are continually seeking to improve our estimates of our user base, and such estimates may change due to improvements or changes in our methodology.

In the United States, The Times had the largest daily and Sunday circulation of all seven-day newspapers for the three-month period ended September 30, 2016, according to data collected by the Alliance for Audited Media (“AAM”), an independent agency that audits circulation of most U.S. newspapers and magazines

Internationally, average circulation for the international edition of our newspaper (which includes paid circulation of the newspaper in print and electronic replica editions) for the fiscal years ended December 25, 2016 , and December 27, 2015 , was approximately 197,000 (estimated) and 215,000, respectively. These figures follow the guidance of Office de Justification de la Diffusion, an agency based in Paris and a member of the International Federation of Audit Bureaux of Circulations that audits the circulation of most newspapers and magazines in France. The final 2016 figure will not be available until April 2017.

Paid digital-only subscriptions totaled approximately 1,853,000 as of December 25, 2016 , an increase of approximately 46% compared with December 27, 2015 . This amount includes paid subscriptions to our Crossword product, which totaled approximately 245,000 as of December 25, 2016. This amount also includes estimated group corporate and group education subscriptions (which collectively represent approximately 7% of total paid digital subscriptions to our news products)…. According to comScore Media Metrix, an online audience measurement service, in 2016, had a monthly average of approximately 85 million unique visitors in the United States on either desktop/laptop computers or mobile devices. Globally, including the United States, had a 2016 monthly average of approximately 122 million unique visitors on either desktop/laptop computers or mobile devices, according to internal data estimates.

So it would seem that Facebook and the Times are really in the same business: Selling eyeballs to advertisers, although, for historical reasons, the Times sells eyeballs via print, for which is uses a metric called “circulation.”

Second, Facebook faces a business problem; it’s unaudited “internal company data” has been, at times, grossly inaccurate; that is, it may be selling eyeballs, but in 2016 buyers don’t really know which eyeballs, how many, and where. Again from the Facebook 10-K:

For example, we discovered an error in the algorithm we used to attribute our revenue by user geography in late 2015. While this issue did not affect our overall worldwide revenue, it did affect our attribution of revenue to different geographic regions. The fourth quarter of 2015 revenue by user geography and ARPU amounts were adjusted to reflect this reclassification. We regularly review our processes for calculating these metrics, and from time to time we may discover inaccuracies in our metrics or make adjustments to improve their accuracy, including adjustments that may result in the recalculation of our historical metrics. We believe that any such inaccuracies or adjustments are immaterial unless otherwise stated.

(More detail on this and other Facebook metrics debacles here and here.) In January 2017, Facebook committed to improving its metrics, under pressure from advertisers:

“We are doubling down on our efforts at third-party verification,” said Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vice president of global marketing solutions.

In addition, the social-media network said it is working with ratings firm Nielsen to count Facebook video views, including both on-demand views and live viewing, as part of Nielsen’s Digital Content Ratings metric.

Lastly, Facebook said it plans to form a Measurement Council made up of marketers and ad agency executives, and will roll out a blog to communicate more regularly on updates about measurement.

Since then, Facebook has formed alliances with other third-party verification firms, including the Media Rating Council:

Facebook revealed a number of new accountability developments in a blog post today, the most significant of which is a commitment to an audit by the Media Rating Council to verify the accuracy of the information it delivers to marketing partners. This and other moves will be integrated over the course of the year. MRC is considered the gold standard of verification in advertising, but even [ P&G’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard] admitted that it is not a perfect solution. Never the less, MRC verification is an important first step in the face of the many new types of engagements offered by mobile and social media platforms.

(MRC does seem to have some clout; it suspended two Google ad measurement metrics over “non-compliance” issues; here, from their pleasingly retro website, is their mission statement:

The Mission of the MRC is to:
● Secure for the media industry and related users audience measurement that is valid, reliable, and effective
The MRC accomplishes its objective by
● Setting Standards
● Conducting audits performed by an independent CPA firm to verify compliance with our Standards

The head of MRC, George Ivie, describes the audit procedure more precisely (and I would like very much to know the exact standard under which Facebook is to be audited, because Ivie doesn’t say. Readers?). From an interview last week (and I’m going to leave it lengthy so you can get a dawning sense of the potential for skeeviness):

RTBlog: So what’s the goal of the audit?

Ivie: We have to audit the originating data. Is it accurate? And how do we do it? Right now, we’re looking at how to audit YouTube, and what does the audit cover? For example, Google could decide to constrain the data it sends to the vendors, but that would be bad. We want to understand what the communications path is.

For example, Moat might have 50 metrics it reports on, but a key metric is viewability and the length of time an ad appears. We have to make sure that the data that’s transferred from Google has enough signaling information to report on the metrics.

RTBlog: What metrics are most important to these companies?

Ivie: I would say viewable impressions is what they’re looking to have validated. For YouTube, it’s video ad impressions that are served and viewable, and duration metrics—those are the most important ones. Facebook has a news feed interface and that drives metrics differently, so there might be different metrics that it chooses to submit.

RTBlog: What is the audit process like?

Ivie: Our audit process is voluntary. Companies can choose what metrics to submit and what not to submit. Advertisers that are MRC members, like P&G, can look at the audit reports. They can see what metrics are accredited or not. My impression is that Google and Facebook will go with the metrics that we suggest and the ones the marketplace wants.

So Facebook chooses what data to submit. I’ll note that if we were back in the print world, this would like locking the auditor into a room, and handing him a report of how many papers were delivered, instead of letting him look at the trucks or the loading dock. In other words, it’s the metric that’s certified, but not the data driving the metric, or the algorithm creating that data. Because I’m a suspicious bastard, I’ll also note that this sounds like a recipe for a phishing equilibrium to me (“If there can be fraud, there already is”).

* * *

Of course, the entire online advertising “ecosystem” is, again, notoriously skeevy. It’s also extremely complex, highly technical, rapidly changing, and riddled with middlemen and rent-seekers of all kinds. So it may be too much to expect to get any sort of a handle on Facebook’s advertising metrics through a little online research.

Therefore, dear readers, we turn to you. If Facebook’s user engagement systems and advertising placement services are working well, then they should be working well for you[1]. Do they? If a really stupid advertisement appears, can you account for it? How about a well-tailored one? If the ad is not appropriate for you, does somebody else use your account? Your machine? Is there someone else in your household for which the ad would obviously be appropriate? How about random ads? Are they really random? If you are the sort of person who leads your life at multiple locations, do the ads seem to track your location? What is your location like? (No need to reveal it!) If the ads track accurately, have you tried to defeat the tracking, say by turning off cookies? If you tell Facebook you don’t like an ad, does it seem to take your wishes into account? And so forth. Have at it! Let’s conduct an audit of user experience!


[1] I use Facebook as little as possible. I also regard advertising on it as a negative (unless the product advertised is one I have already purchased. I have never purchased anything I saw on Facebook).

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This entry was posted in Guest Post, Market inefficiencies, Regulations and regulators, Technology and innovation, The dismal science on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Julian

    Facebook advertisements are among the most ridiculous. They usually target me accurately, but not until AFTER I’ve bought the product in question. It has happened countless times: I subscribed to the WSJ and the next day for the first time I see a WSJ advertisement on Facebook. I buy a product on Amazon and suddenly I start seeing advertisements for similar products which I obviously won’t buy because I JUST BOUGHT a similar (or even the same!) product. Perhaps if they has shown me the ads beforehand…because to be fair I have bought things from FB ads.

    1. fresno dan

      March 19, 2017 at 1:41 pm

      I have exactly the same experience – after I bought a watch, zillions of ads for watches. (I only need one!)
      But I have to say, I do find the experience often very amusing. I clicked on a NC link about creating artificial life and the ad on the site was for a science fiction movie about discovering life on Mars – the tagline for the movie was “we were better off alone” which I thought was pretty hilarious given the article was about the dangers of life created from DNA in the lab….

      Rollng Stones “Miss you”
      Well, I’ve been haunted in my sleep
      You’ve been staring in my dreams
      Lord I miss you.
      I’ve been waiting in the hall
      Been waiting on your call
      When the phone rings
      It’s just some friends of mine that say,
      “Hey, what’s the matter man?
      We’re gonna come around at twelve
      With some Puerto Rican girls that are just dyin’ to meet you
      We’re gonna bring a case of wine
      Hey, let’s go mess and fool around
      You know, like we used to”

      And considering I don’t listen to the Rolling Stones on YouTube, I really don’t know why I get sooooo many ads for dating Puerto Rican girls….

      1. Dead Dog

        Hey, being a bit on an insomniac and often here in the wee hours, doing a bit of writing, but mostly reading, occasionally buying…

        So I start getting ads suggesting I go to the doctor as he/she might have a medicine to help with my weak bladder.

        ‘They’ know a lot more about us than we think. But no, no weak bladder – ha ha

        1. Dead Dog

          I’ll add that, as a novelist, I have spent money on FB to target my audience (action thrillers)

          Despite offering thousands of ad placements in return for my money (several hundred spent), nil sales, zilch, nada.

          I suspect a lot of people and companies are paying for ads that appear, but are never read or considered.

          What happened to only paying if your ad reaches someone and you get a connection? I guess you don’t need to actually do that when you have a monopoly.

          Money for jam as my Mother would say

      2. hemeantwell

        Late to the party, I’ve also experienced this version of buyer’s remorse. But it’s not just FB. On my smartphone many sites intersperse memories of online purchases with their content. I randomly fund the sites by opening the ads in a new background tab and then close it later.

  2. Ash

    Right now on FB, Geico wants to know if I am expanding my family, so that’s nowhere close to my true demographic. Verizon wants to sell me a prepaid plan, but come on, who on FB isn’t a target of phone advertising? GoDaddy wants to sell me pre-built websites, so that’s in the ballpark, but not really. IBM wants me to check out their new blockchain technology, which is in fact interesting, and yet, I am nowhere near the right audience for that ad to be effective. Finally, my alma mater wants to sell me some swag.

    Tangentially, I live in an area of 10,000 people, and Facebook regularly tells me as an advertiser I can reach 70,000 people in the immediate area. That’s true only if fish are people.

  3. Jeff

    So Facebook chooses what data to submit. I’ll note that if we were back in the print world, this would like locking the auditor into a room, and handing him a report of how many papers were delivered, instead of letting him look at the trucks or the loading dock.

    I read the text you underlined differently. Facebook can select what metrics are important (eg number of ad views per ‘daily active user’), and MRC will then verify that the metrics that Facebook reports are correct.
    Going back to the stone ages of print, the NYT could report on the number of print copies really printed; sold; or viewed. The former two are easily verified but incomplete, the latter is what imports to advertisers, but is much harder to estimate (e.g. how many views get a NYT copy in a public library or in the hotel lobby?).

    As to your original question, when I still had FB, the success rate was 0%. The observed censorship** by FB and the increasing number of ads made me abandon FB altogether, so I can’t help you.

    **I used two accounts, mutually friended, and two devices (smartphone & PC). I got data on my mobile that was never shown on the PC and vice versa. So it really is not you discussing with your friends, but you talking to the ‘adult in the room’ who will decide what friends get updated.

  4. Chet Gottfried

    I use an ad blocker. :-)

    It’s not 100 percent effective, but I see relatively few ads, which are easy to ignore.

      1. Carl

        Thank you, Lord. Installing…
        Since I’m commenting, have never clicked on a FB ad. Echoing comments on seeing ads for products already purchased elsewhere.

    1. Anand Shah

      I use the Brave Browser (a sanitized version of Chrome + Privacy Badger – Google Account)

      it is a more anonymous version of Google Chrome…

      I don’t know, how my data is being used… but assuming that NSA is the overarching overlord, whose antecendents will only be known by my grandchildren…. brave is a product i can live with…

      it definitely keeps the ads out… :-)

  5. Chris

    I’d say less than 3 ads out of 20 ads that splash across my feed are something that is successfully targeted at me.

    Most of the things I save to my feed or want follow up on are opportunities I already knew about. The bands, restaurants, shopping, etc. that get posted to my feed are rarely in my area or something I’m interested in. I have no interest in making the ads more accurate. I typically just nix them from my feed.

    I use FB for 3 things: keeping in touch with family/easily sharing photos with them, following my artist friends and heroes, commenting on groups that cover my hobbies. I don’t buy anything off FB. I don’t click through ads on FB. I don’t follow brands on FB. If my friends and family were part of a different social media network, I’d uninstall FB and use that one instead.

    1. kgc

      Ditto 100%. Plus I don’t even look at the ads-have only a sort of subliminal awareness that they’re even there.

      My kids are gradually abandoning FB. When the last one goes, so will I.

  6. petal

    The ads that come up on fb rarely are anything I’d be remotely interested in and most times I wonder where the heck it’s coming from. Good for a chuckle, and sometimes irritating, like the ads for new or expecting mothers(it’s actually painful as I’m 38 and not likely to have a child). No one else uses my account or machine. If I tell fb I don’t like an ad, it doesn’t seem to matter. Stuff from the same company or along the same lines still comes up in the future. It’s almost like they break it down to age and expect everyone in that age range to like a particular brand or product or to all be in the same place in their lives-nothing more complex than that. A very general, bull in a china shop kind of marketing plan.

    Chris that posted above, same here. I use it to keep in touch with geographically widespread friends and family, and my artist friends and a few hobbies. If not for that, I’d kill my account in a heartbeat. I don’t click on the ads or buy stuff through it.

  7. cybrestrike

    Facebook ads only rarely interest me. To me, there appears to be no rhyme or reason as to why I see certain ads. The only time ads seem to successfully target me is whenever I browse or purchase anything on Amazon. And even then it’s very sporadic.

    I use Facebook quite a bit. As a military vet and generally well traveled even after I ETS’ed, it’s the only way to keep in touch with family and friends who are scattered across five continents.

  8. NeoGeshel

    Yes for the most part they do. And, to be honest, I actually rather like that they do. I’d rather see an ad for something I might actually be interested in than something totally irrelevant.

  9. LT

    I don’t use Facebook, but search engine (Google) and Facebook gobble up the greatest share of advertiser dollars online.
    So if what people see doesn’t exactly fit, I imagine they have to put those ads somewhere to justify the dollars advertisers are spending. They just have to convince the advertisers its accurately targeted…wink…

  10. LT

    Also, the execs are still around that understand the manipulations of network/cable/radio/print metrics (Nielsen) a whole lot better. I get the feeling the ad industry is still really trying to lockdown “the rules of the game” with online advertising.

  11. Old Jake

    Facebook thinks I was born in 1919, am from Nyack NY, like guns, Steve Bannon and Paul Ryan. Not much they show my has relevance.

  12. B1whois

    I use my Facebook account to post political articles from this site mainly. I also use it to post pictures and videos from the things I’m doing here in Uruguay to my friends back in Sacramento California. My ads seem to be rather well targeted, featuring shirts and support of Standing Rock, and health insurance for expats in Uruguay.

  13. Jerry

    I don’t think I see any ads at FB now. Earlier today I saw a Discovercard ad. I see lots of suggested groups for me to join.

  14. Ed

    I hate to be off topic but I am sort of trying to keep this on topic because I know a lot of people use Facebook’s messenger or chat app so I am wondering if this happens to them…

    Sometimes when I am talking to my friend on Skype I swear that I am targeted with ads that have to do with weird specific things we were talking about. I don’t know if Microsoft or Skype have in their fine print that they use keywords from private conversations to produce ads aimed at you or if it is all a weird coincidence…

    But I am wondering if people have experienced this through the Facebook messenger. This is more than just things I consistently search for or that would fit some model that I appear to fit into.

    1. rivegauche

      Have experienced a few of those strange coincidences. The most recent one was this morning. I have an Android phone, and Chrome as my laptop browser, but mostly I use my Fire (Android) to read NC and view my FB newsfeed. All Google-based.

      I’ve been revising my will and trust. (Simple to do – not much there in this economy of recent decades and being on my own.)

      Re the will/trust updates: this fact has not ever been, and will never go, on FB, nor will any personal detail. I’m not a FB friend with my sons, either. Neither of them have much activity on FB because of their jobs.

      Friday I sent a phone text to my sons about meeting Saturday to review my draft will/trust update. (They have Android phones) Yesterday, following the family meeting, I sent another phone text to them. It included the words final, will, review date, and trust.

      This morning in my FB newsfeed there was a “sponsored” piece linking to a Forbes article from 1-24-17. Am not following Forbes, btw. The title? “Morgan Stanley Voice: You’ve Been Named Executor of a Parent’s Will. Now What?”

      1. Res Ipsa Loquitur

        Something similar happened to me recently with Gmail. Not that I was surprised in the least or anything. I was emailing someone about the legalities of getting, among other things, a cow brain from a custom beef processor, and very shortly after received an email from some company offering a “train your brain” or some such product. I’m not certain exactly what it was as I quickly marked it as junk, but they persisted, as I received at least one more in short order. I only know that both messages had brain in the subject line. I guess they had me pegged as someone very interested in brains.

      2. B1whois

        I have been targeted for adds for something I never searched for anywhere, I only talked about it in amessenger chat.

  15. Susan the other

    OK here’s this. Amoebas are one celled animals; bacteria; viruses. They need simple synapse connections to function in an one-going manner…. we are multi-celled animals and our cells themselves are complex creatures – “Lives of a Cell” is a good introduction into what we might actually be – or what we might be trying to actuate — but whatever. In evolution nobody knows… we might be time retaded like precession… we might be living in a world that can actually role backward and mitigate things that have not yet fucking happened. Whatever. And Facebook is just another turd.

  16. jfleni

    I cannot understand the reason FB’ers say that their motives are mostly keeping in touch with family and friends; why not email which works much better, and is far more private?

    Then too the common sneers of “Faceborg” and “Buttbook” not to mention the frequent appearances of ‘man of the people’ Herr FB in a ratty t-shirt (he must buy them by the gross), all spell “bush league” and indicate a silly gossipy-column kind of site.

    Ads are usually unimportant and forgettable.

    Obviously I am not a FB person!

  17. justanotherprogressive

    I am an inveterate searcher. When I see something that interest me or something I don’t understand, I immediately do a search, so the ads I get on facebook are often pretty strange. (No, just because I looked up what is happening in Tanzania does not mean I am interested in a safari package). I too have an ad blocker but it doesn’t seem to stop Facebook from trying to recommend pages for me.

  18. pete

    I always clear my history and never stay logged into FB. I use one browser only for FB and i never keep a history. I am trying to keep from all that junk where another website recognizes you from FB. Anyway I dont find the adds to be relevant to me but I do find them to be creepy and invasive and my efforts dont seem to keep different parts of the webs from keeping tabs on me and communicating.

  19. Synoia

    I do not have a FB account, and do not use FB. Nor do I use Google very much to search.

    I have a paid email account and pay becuse I do not want to be an advertisement target.

  20. PlutoniumKun

    I only use FB very occasionally, and only because a few friends/family insist on using it as the main contact. I refuse to have the app on my phone or laptop and deliberately restrict my use.

    I find that the majority of ads are irrelevant for me. I get a lot of ads for stock trading, which I don’t do – I assume I get this because of my interest in economics. I also get lots of ads for ‘over 40’s dating’, which I assume is because I’m over 40 and put my status down as single. Like Julian above, I get lots of ads for things which are too late – like for something I’ve just bought online, or for flights or hotels for places I’ve just been to. I can’t think off the top of my head of any occasion when I’ve clicked an ad because it was so enticing or relevant to me.

    In comparison terms, I find the google generated ads on webpages I use are a little better targeted – occasionally creepily accurate, but mostly off-mark, or just so obvious that you shouldn’t need a fancy algorithm (e.g. ads for hotels in Spain after I’ve been searching for information on a trip to Spain). Sometimes it can be a little funny, as when my female Japanese room mate used my pc for a while and it hopelessly confused the algorithm, I got some wierdly off-beat ads for months.

  21. NorCalGuy

    FB ads about 95% accurate for my online persona.

    That includes ads sent to me as a result of my habit of regularly making fake likes to test their ad algorithm. (I consistently “like” posts on a couple strange subjects and some repellent politicians)

    Sadly, I think their algorithms truly work on a large set of unsuspecting users. The ad content seems designed to whip people into a state of more or less permanent outrage.

  22. Edward

    I never used facebook. I set up an account once but then balked at supplying any personal info because it seemed like spyware.

  23. ChrisPacific

    For the most part FB does OK, although I’m skeptical about how much of it is actually Facebook adding value and couldn’t be replicated by simple third party cookie tracking.

    By and large mine fall into a few categories:

    1) Useless/irrelevant: I still see a few of these, but not as many (or perhaps I’ve just got better at mentally filtering them out)
    2) Related to somebody I follow or a group that I look at on Facebook (i.e. based on derived interests). These are usually fairly relevant. Generally it’s things I know about/own already but once in a while they will alert me to a new product coming out, or something that I wasn’t aware of.
    3) Something that one of my friends ‘likes’ (generally presented as “X likes…” but since Facebook chooses which of these to show me and when, I still count this as advertising). These are similar to the above but less likely to be new (generally if I’m interested then I own the product/consume the service already). These can be annoying as I tend to see the same ones over and over.
    4) Related to something in my browser history (cookie tracking). The most obvious example is if I’m researching a particular product for work and then it starts popping up constantly in my Facebook feed. I’m not sure if this is successful or not. It’s not the kind of thing I would ever buy as a consumer, and if I’m evaluating it for business purposes then a Facebook ad isn’t going to sway me, but it does help keep me aware of the brand, so perhaps it would make me less likely to forget about them if I needed to do an options assessment (for example). There is a certain annoyance factor here as I generally prefer to keep FB separate from work matters.

    Facebook advertising used to annoy me a lot more than it does now, which might mean that it has become better targeted, but more likely means that I’ve become used to filtering out ‘filler’ items in my feed.

  24. Moneta

    I only notice the ads when they are for something I already bought.

    Maybe the images of these ads are being stored somewhere in my brain but at the conscious level I am oblivious to them.

  25. ChrisAtRU

    Not too impressed by FB ads. Basically the cookies that get dropped when I search for things – like R/C cars, for example – serve as the signal. FB just shows me ads of the same things I searched for – more R/C cars. It doesn’t even try to up-sell me on a R/C plane or boat! Same for other things. Not very sophisticated at all.

    However, it does seem that if you tell FB you’re interested in certain things, ads may work better. I did declare my music preferences somewhere in FB years ago, and I did get one awesome band recommendation from it. So there’s that.

  26. HBE

    The reason most people don’t see relevant ads much of the time is not an issue on Facebooks end. Sadly (for privacy) their data on users is highly comprehensive and I’ve found to be highly accurate. The level of targeting granularity is beyond anything that can be done on any other platform.

    Irrelevant ads largely come from inexperienced businesses or individuals who see the literally hundreds of demographic, interest, behavioral and other targeting options and go way overboard in their targeting efforts without effectively segmenting ad groups. Basically the end up targeting everyone and no one at the same time.

    The other source of irrelevant ads come from extremely large companies who largely use custom api’s and partially automate much of the targeting and spend. These large companies use a variety of metrics but most focus on driving conversions (sales, sign-ups, etc). So as long as they are seeing a positive ROAS (return on ad spend) that meets the goals they set out with. They won’t expend the time further optimizing, and just take irrelevant ads as a side benefit in awareness generation.

    All this said Facebook has been caught on several occasions lying about its metrics and miscalculating them, which is why for the vast majority, impressions are among the least important metrics for most purposes and a conversion tracking pixel is placed to track conversions on site to gain accurate ROAS data based on data one can trust is accurate. All this data is then fully tracked by ad campaign using utm tags in google analytics to get accurate info outside Facebook.

    Basically that long winded explanation means poor ads are seen because of bad targeting by advertisers not Facebook.

    Most probably wouldn’t use Facebook if they knew the entirety of how intrusive and accurate its data is.

    1. Larry

      Completely agree with this statement. The only thing I would add is that there are advertisers that consider me their target, even though I would never consider what they’re selling. That doesn’t mean that Facebook messed up the ad.

    2. Yves Smith

      Just because the data is granular, how do you know it is accurate? Do you do in real life verification? If not, you are exhibiting the cognitive bias of where more detail is assumed to mean more validity. This shows up in various forms, where more specific story-telling is seen as more truthful when it may not be and in the conjunction fallacy.:

      1. You don’t know if FB readers are being truthful or fully truthful about information they provide

      2. Their likes and community may not provide valid inferences. I have contacts who are flagged by FB as politically conservative when they aren’t, for instance.

      3. Data mapping from other sources isn’t easy or reliable

      1. HBE

        Accuracy for many businesses and agencies is based on the data provided by tracking done by the analytics on their website (usually google, others do exist though).

        Traffic (and more importantly conversions) is then analyzed through users interaction on site using analytics. Those users coming from Facebook ads are uniquely tagged down to the ad group or individual ad level.

        Accuracy is based on the ROAS, if Facebook users are converting (making purchases etc.) at a level that meets or exceeds ROAS. It is often enough for most to be satisfied with accuracy.

        Outside data, anecdotally I’ve seen how accurate it’s targeting can be. One example: which was verified by a third party (based on shipping data provided by e-commerce software). The Hmong community in several specific exburbs of a city were targeted with a specific product offer and e-commerce data showed nearly all purchases that came from Facebook paid traffic came from the targeted group in those locations.

        Generally though, advertisers are most concerned with revenue and ROI data and if those meet goals. If they do Facebooks targeting is considered to be accurate.

  27. Arizona Slim

    I have been an Internet user since 1995. And I have yet to see ads for goods and services that I really want.

  28. Annotherone

    I have a Facebook account but the place gives me the creeps. I deactivated the a/c once. Later reactivated it when I needed to look at something there, but decided to change my d.o.b. – icognito an’ all that. I never go into the belly of the beast now, not ever.

    I use Google, and Blogger (without ads); I find ads for the last few items I’ve been considering follow me around – for instance just before I came here I’d been to Alibris and an ad followed me here! These things don’t bother me as long as I’m out in the wilds of the net – and not in that horrendous Facebook enclosure.

  29. Reify99

    I don’t use FB but Ihave noticed ads in the margins of NC that relate to my internet use. For instance, I visited Popular Mechanics for the first time through my Apple News feed. For a day thereafter I was getting ads for hobby drones in the margins of NC.

  30. Reify99

    I did use FB in Spanish for awhile a few years ago. I registered with inaccurate data and name. I don’t recall any Spanish ads during my other internet activity at the time.

    My wife uses FB which keeps us up to date on goings on of friends and family on other continents. I don’t see her ads.

  31. Hobbs

    Just looked at FB. Ads for sky-high high-heeled sandals from Zappos. Wha??? My last shoe purchase was low motorcycle-style boots. And ads for migraine research. Huh? And ads for smart home thermostats. That will be the day.

    FB, you aren’t even trying.

  32. Anonymous

    Facebook? What is Facebook? Oh, the facehugger that I systematically block on ALL my devices. That the one you mean?

    If yes, I have never seen a Facebook ad….

  33. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    I very rarely notice any Ads, which is possibly due to my Ad blocker. I have just had a look & there is only one Ad ( which is sponsored ) for free sound effects. I cannot imagine why anyone would think that I have a need for such a thing.

    Coincidentally, a post I noticed while there is from Dmitry Orlov, who appears to be annoyed about one particular Ad, leading him to share it with his comment of : ” Facebook ” sponsored Ad ” so stupid it hurts “.

    It is on behalf of some company named ” Home Depot ” for an 18 gauge galvanised post cap/base priced at $4.38.

  34. Edward

    The worst internet advertising ever may be from the Democratic party. They spam my email with unwanted solicitations for money. I am not a fan of the Democrats. Its possible some of these emails are malicious ones from the Republicans. The Republicans have used such tactics with phone calls.

  35. ambrit

    My two cents worth. I don’t use Facebook, but my Yahoo “homepage” is always putting up “sponsored” “news items” related to something or other that I have googled recently. As an example; if I google a Kardashian “non-event,” I’ll get an ad the next day for “Nip Slip Overexposure Insurance.” I guess it’s because my first name is androgynous.
    What bothers me about all of this is that we already know that the big data collectors are “in bed” with the State Security Apparats. When will these “prophetic algorithms” be switched from supplying targeted ads to pre-crime identification?
    I’m becoming Meta Cynical in my old age.
    See this about the Cynics Conundrum:

  36. Adam Reilly

    I generally don’t pay attention to facebook advertising, but it’s recommended at least one fantastic fantasy series that I’ve never seen advertised elsewhere.

  37. pissed younger baby boomer

    I have couple purchasing sites in my browser favorites .I get ads from them ,My self I have no cellphone and no social media apps .I have no use for social sites, just land line phone and internet .I also do not have them because of security flaws .

  38. Sutter Cane

    I am a regular Facebook user. My job involves sitting in a cubicle and most of my co-workers, though nice enough, are not people I can joke around with. I can use FB to post smartass comments with my friends that I wouldn’t voice in the office, or to follow certain writers whose posts I enjoy, mostly ones of a leftist bent. I also use it to keep track of concerts and other entertainment events in my city.

    The Facebook ads are noticeable simply for how off the mark they are. In my FB feed, in-between articles from Jacobin or posts from some socialist meme page, I will get ads hawking camouflage fanny packs or “Don’t tread on me” t-shirts. One “suggested product” that kept coming up was a t-shirt with one of those unfunny messages geared toward school bus drivers. It seemed like such an oddly specific thing to try to sell me, and I have no idea how FB became convinced that I was a school bus driver. There were also t-shirts for single dads of daughters, also an oddly specific product. I hadn’t discussed being a single parent or driving school busses with anyone. Apparently Facebook is convinced that I’m a gun-loving, divorced, school bus driving, right wing single dad when I’m a pinko commie, never-married bachelor who has never owned a gun.

    Cambridge had a study that claimed it “accurately predicts psychological traits from digital footprints of human behaviour” – basically it will look at your FB likes and can predict your political leanings, personality traits, and some demographic information from them. Here is the link:

    I used the link to analyze my profile and found the conclusions a little off. It put a lot of weight on things like having “liked” the page for Johnny Cash – this makes it appear more likely to FB that I’m conservative, apparently.

  39. p7b

    I quit FB about 6 months ago. (used it for invites to art/music and social events, it was excellent for that. Never looked at the feed on purpose, filtered most of my foodpic/selfie friends…)

    I’d say it did an average job by the standards of internet ad targeting, which is to say fairly bad. I also have a separate computer (cheapo chromebook) and online ID’s, but not internet connection, for my online political advocacy stuff, and I never use my phone and try to turn off geolocation whenever possible. This makes for an interesting experiment. My political-activism online ID gets a crazy and entirely contradictory mix of left-wing and right-wing newsfeeds, for example. Adsense guesses for my age and gender are all over the map.

    A few months ago I realized that I could make my browsing experience more pleasant by clicking on ads that have appealing visual content to try to encourage those… I won’t describe what, exactly. I get lots of lovely and benign audio-book ads now :-)

  40. Propertius

    I have never purchased anything I saw on Facebook.

    Me neither, but then I’ve never logged into FaceBorg.

  41. Octopii

    FB or no, why the heck are all you nice people seeing ads? Does nobody use a blocker? I travel the web in blissful anonymity, no cookies allowed on non-whitelisted sites, ads blocked, trackers blocked, JavaScript mostly blocked. I know, it’s a fantasy. But I very rarely see ads. And if somebody like Forbes won’t show me an article unless I whitelist them on my blocker, well, too bad, back to NC for the next link please. I prefer to donate to sites I value, or buy things from them, etc… rather than see ads. Seems to work pretty well, notwithstanding any secret databases.

  42. Insertnamehere

    To the extent that I know the ads are targeting me or my family, yes. Their chief problem seems to be that they’re not predictive or timely.

    Around 6 months ago I was debating fixing my car vs buying. I fixed, but even had I not, the car deals that populate my feed would be late. They’re still numerous.

    Sometimes I get ads for WordPress. This is something I’m vaguely interested in, but don’t really have the time. I’d suggest that being a successful blogger, podcaster, etc is something many would like to do, and that this is a more generic ad for those who visit political sites.

    The house has WiFi and Facebook assumes we’re all one amorphous blob. My wife was googling printer recommendations as a gift. HP ads made their way into my feed. This is entertaining because Facebook ads essentially allow me to spy on my house. My daughter is 14 and we live walking distance to a mall. When movie ads appear in my feed it is usually because she is debating whether or not to go, or already has gone. When kitchen appliances appear, it’s because my wife burned something earlier (oven is old and heats unevenly). If AshleyMadison ads appear, I will know to worry about my marriage.

  43. UserFriendly

    The only add I’ve seen on fb in the last year is for the NY Times. I would sooner eat glass then pay them any money. Must come from all the news sites I go to ;-)

  44. vlade

    not using FB at all, but in general my experience with add push is that it pushes too late – basically what I just bought.

    As I’m not in the population you’re interested in (FB) users, I’d not write except for th latter bit and someone mentioning it, as I do wonder whether pushing “too late, already got it” adds doesn’t help the providers (google/FB) to massage the data, as then they can claim (in carefuly constructed statements) things like “user X who was shown adds for Y bought it”. As you can see, the statement does not have any explicit causality or even time-ordering, but implicit reading would be “bought it because was shown the ad”.

  45. vidimi

    facebook (and google) is pretty good at advertising flights or hotels that i have just booked, probably to entice me to book them again.

    where the advertising does work (sort of, i’ve never actually gone) is when they advertise local events i.e. comedy shows, concerts, restaurants. i can see how that can be a good way to get the word out.

  46. Pespi

    You can request all your data from facebook, and after two days of processing, you see your ad targeting keywords. Mine were incredibly vague, and only two would be accurate reflections and translate to useful ads. some of the follow around “you looked at this at another site and didn’t buy it, here it is again” you could say are accurate, but if I actually wanted those things I would have bought them.

  47. Vinny

    Facebook thinks I’m Jewish. I frequently get ads for mission trips, Birthright, Jewish education, Jewish studies programs etc.

    I’m not Jewish.

  48. Teddy

    My experience may not be very relevant, since I use several plugins designed for conspiracy theorists etc. who want to avoid being tracked on the Internet. Generally I see two types of ads and other output (like suggested pages to like, or groups to join) on Facebook: completely obvious (i.e. politics-related stuff, since I follow political fanpages and participate in political discussions) or seemingly random (I often see ads for booking trips, even though I hate travelling and sometimes I don’t even know anything about the destinations on offer; for some reason Facebook seems to think I’m much wealthier than in reality, since I get ads for luxury goods worth my several months’ income too).

    On a related note, what do you think about this piece? It seems to be based around themes familiar to regular readers of NC and pretty believable, but I’d like to see some input from people who actually know something.

  49. aj

    The online ad industry is all a big game. Yeah, they have a lot of data, but they still have to game the numbers to make it work. I know because I used to be one of them. A lot of the online advertising industry has switched over to a pay-for-sale model where only the last advertiser to show you an ad before you buy gets the credit and thus the payment. The highest probability way to be this last view is to show you a ton of ads for a site you just visited. You have already expressed interest in the site and they are taking a bet that you navigated away for a minute–to check your Facebook for example–and then will return to the original site to buy. Thus, the ad provides no value to the company paying for it and has a high probability of showing you stuff you’ve already bought.

    Everyone in online advertising plays this same game. Getting a sale from someone completely out of the blue is hard and happens very rarely–like the guy up top says about trying to sell his novel. Even when you pay for clicks (like on Google AdWords) you don’t really get what you pay for. The overlap in the Venn diagram for people who click on banner ads and people who buy things is ridiculously small. Most clicks–especially on mobile–are accidental. And the number 1 predictor of whether someone will click on an ad is that they’ve clicked on one before. That is, there are some people that just click on ads for whatever reason–or they are bots, which is a whole other story.

  50. What's the larger picture at play?

    Some observations:
    1.) I know a lot of divorced woman who use aliases on FB. You are not supposed to use fake names but they do it for security reasons somewhat unrelated to FB.
    2.) I use an alias as well. But it is still a rarity amongst male friends.
    3.) Whenever I purchase something online, the FB ads directly address the product I just bought. So I assume FB is reading cookies and other things left on my computer.
    4.) Like Social Security, your name may not be as important as the numbers you type into the computer. I think the numbers you type in are what really gets tracked. As in the last 4 numbers of your credit card, your birth date, what you click on, the amount of time spent, what you mark as offensive, etc. That, and your IPN number become your identifying marks?
    5.) Have you ever done any of those quizzes that ask you “Which character are you?” The results vary. But these pages are designed to reveal tell tale signs of what kind of consumer you are. It is a fun item to game if you are looking to waste a few minutes. I have noticed I can change the ads based on my answers to these types of questions. But even with that, I do think that in the aggregate these types of questionnaires provide advertisers with enough accurate information to target ads at me.
    6.) I was seduced to subscribe to a dating site. It was not well used by other people when I first signed up. And I did not read the fine print of the contract because 1 month after my initial 6 month contract ended, I got a collection notice in the mail for several hundred dollars. And . . . The ad no longer appears on my FB page.
    7.) Responding to political pages cuts many ways. When I clicked my dismay at HRC back in May 16 and commented in some linked articles, my FB page was hacked. If I was critical of Trump, I received a lot of info on the democrats. But when I wrote critically about Clinton, the response time was almost immediate, very bellicose, and demeaning. This became a game in itself to see how long it would take before my FB page was hacked again. All in all, it was hacked 3 times.
    8.) No one at FB responds or answers questions about ads.
    9.) My daughters, son, and nieces/nephews don’t use FB much. They don’t like being tracked by the parental units. They all are in the twitter verse and other apps.
    10.) I used to have many more friends on FB from other parts of the world. That changed after this election. Along with the type of ads I know get.

  51. Archangel

    I used to be really, really hooked on Facebook. I was all over the political pages and commentaries, and quite a few others too.
    One day, I just gave it up and walked away when I decided I was pouring too much time and energy into it. Many on my friends list friended my wife when they realized I wasn’t coming back.

    I’m a lot happier and calmer as a result. =)

    As to the question at hand, the “targeted” ads mostly weren’t really relevant to me, and the few that were, I found boring and vapid. I tuned them out mostly, and having a decent ad blocker helps.

  52. JimTan

    From my own personal experience, Facebook ads are most accurate when they display links to websites I previously visited that day ( I wonder of this counts as a retroactive click ). I usually find new online shopping from very specific search engine queries, so these disregarded ads are the ones I remember most.

    My pet peeve with Facebook’s digital advertising is customers have no way to verify that purchased Advertisements are displayed to their users. If Facebook collects biographical, demographic, behavioral, location, and browsing history data from 1.6 billion users for the purpose of selling Highly Targeted Advertising to outside companies, then there should be some mechanism to verify they’re targeting the right customers. Since every user has a unique Facebook page, with unique advertisements, there is no way to count the number of times an ad is displayed or if it was displayed to someone with a preference for the advertisers product. This lack of transparency creates a meaningful incentive for sales fraud. How much would you charge a customer if they agreed to pay you a fixed fee per item sold, but have no way of counting ( verifying ) the number of items sold?

    I suspect some of the Ad industry push for third-party verification is probably because large clients are realizing that years of growing Facebook Advertising spend is not translating into revenue gains. Third-party verification has the same incentives for deceptive sales practices. The Facebook’s of the digital world need a better system of direct customer verification to keep them honest.

  53. redwood_guy

    I’ve never bought anything off of FB, nor have I ever seen anything I wanted to buy. I log in and out with every use. The adds I see mostly seem to be scams – today there was an add that said that a “little known” parting act by Obama made it possible to get “four payments” a year to supplement Social Security. Of course to find out about how to get those payments you had do subscribe to an expensive newsletter. Why has fraud become normalized on the Internet? What kind of publisher even allows these sort of con artists to troll their content?

  54. kw

    Mess with Facebook, as a friend of mine does, by relocating yourself to an exotic island or far off nation and wait to see what ads roll in.

  55. Peter Pan

    Ads? What Adds? Where am I supposed to see them on the FazeBorg?

    It probably has something to do with my working for the ET Alien Division of the Russian SVR at Thule AB, Greenland.

  56. Clark Landwehr

    Facebook thinks I am in the construction business or something. I get ads for all kinds of industrial equipment like fume hoods and giant kitchen mixers and pumps.HA!
    I am a video editor, retoucher and digital artist; I have done some building maintenance training videos which explains the ads, I guess.
    The other ads I get are for stuff I just bought. I never pay any attention to the ads.
    Probably closing Facebook account soon. Already got out of LinkdIn or whatever it is. Gradually reducing exposure to social media. I don’t even do that much web-surfing either. But read NC every day.

    In my fields, people who hire you at the top level, don’t want you to waste time on social media. In fact they aren’t even impressed if you have your own website. They would rather you see you do another design or project. No professional creative who has work to do has time to waste on Facebook. There are industry-centric websites that you can get exposure to the right audience for free.

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