Probably by now, you have heard about how Facebook was involved in a controversy regarding how they handled user data and distributed it to third-parties without explicit user consent. Following the surge of media coverage and justified anger from users and privacy advocates, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, answered two days of questions from federal lawmakers.
Facebook also made some key changes in their advertising platform that affects marketers and small business owners alike. Some of these changes will affect the way they advertise, and other changes that are relatively inconsequential.
At the core of the controversy is the about of “anonymized” (hashed) user data with partner data. Most people aren’t aware of the sheer breadth and depth of the data that Facebook and partners have on them. In an experimental and “educational capacity, Facebook allowed some partners to enrich their datasets with user data. While it wasn’t intended for these partners to download all of their interests and friend data, they did.
Cambridge Analytica utilized this data to form their proprietary dataset of interests for nefarious purposes. They utilized Facebook as an advertising medium beyond what Facebook provides advertisers for ad targeting by way of Custom Audiences. Then they executed highly targeted campaigns intended to sway public opinion by exploiting people’s psychological weaknesses and compelling them to take their message out further. Amid all this, in late December 2017, Facebook removed audience estimate data as the company was researching how bad actors were exploiting their ad targeting platform, which was a separate, but similar incident as it relates to Facebook and political campaigns.
In response to the legitimate data privacy concerns in how some apps and partners use this data, Facebook has deployed some significant changes to their Pages, Groups, and Ads products.
In a nutshell, audience estimate and insight data are unavailable. I don’t expect them to return these features. Facebook has also removed third-party partner categories through Experian, Acxiom, Epsilon, TransUnion, Polk, and others. I expect that this data will become “merged” within the regular Facebook targeting after they audit them for accuracy and privacy purposes. Personally, I’ve found this information incredibly granular and useful to build audiences if you’re starting from scratch. Further optimization of high-performing audiences involves trimming these partner categories once you have your regular targeting in place. Partner data categories cost approximately 15% more per impression, so this effort also reduces the cost per conversion, too.
They also updated their policies for app developers as it pertains to retention and overall handling of acquired user data. The changes further restrict access to friend data and other PII that can be used for less than ethical purposes. Select partners will have greater access than others after they are approved by Facebook to abide by stringent data access permissions. Additionally, Facebook has offered a cash bounty for information seeking information about apps that abuse their platform policies.
So, what does this mean for small businesses?
Succinctly, not much. However, without a solid background in Facebook Ads, small business owners might find it more challenging to build effective audiences, thus could operate less effective campaigns and potentially higher costs. Even without partner data, the Facebook Ads platform is fantastic.
Page and Group owners with large audiences will be subjected to further identity verification to ensure there aren’t any inappropriate uses of Facebook. However, for the typical small business owner, this isn’t a major concern, and if so, it’s a good problem to have.
It’s a good time for Facebook Advertisers to review their audiences for removed partner categories and update them to their next-closest equivalent. Be sure that your ad targeting complies with the letter and the spirit of the law to ensure you’re not discriminating against your audience. Facebook themselves are in the spotlight, and they will likely enforce their policies more aggressively to avoid further risk to their reputation.
If nothing else, these changes emphasize the need for small businesses to master digital marketing beyond Facebook. It’s a reminder that at any moment, advertising platforms can make decisions that can impact small businesses.