Every few months, a new article surfaces with “proven” claims that Facebook is listening to their conversations. They recount talking about product categories or specific items, but refrain from ever searching for those items only to be served an ad from relevant brands on Facebook or Instagram.
Failing to give that experience much thought beyond its headline shock value could easily sway you into thinking Facebook is listening in on your daily life, and given the company’s history of privacy issues, the idea isn’t all that out of the question.
Then again, it’s entirely possible that Facebook isn’t listening, but rather has enough data about you and your online activity to make intelligent inferences to the types of ads you may be interested in. What if Facebook is simply really, really good at its job?
Internet detectives raise red flags
In a YouTube video with nearly 2 million views, a couple spends a day talking about cat food, despite the fact that they don’t have a cat, and is served an ad for cat food two days later. On the surface this test and ones like it can be convincing, but there are two caveats that keep them from being conclusive.
First, think of all the ads you see each day and don’t remember. If an ad isn’t relevant to you, it’s likely that you don’t pay attention to it. As such, if you aren’t actively looking for something specific, it may have been in your newsfeed well before you started talking about it. The second issue is that these types of tests don’t take into account all of the information that goes into Facebook’s audiences. Here’s what I mean: Facebook ads are far more advanced than simple retargeting from a website you visited. That capability is certainly an important one, but it is only part of the possible advertising routes that exist within the social network.
Here’s how it probably works
What makes the social marketing landscape so great for advertisers is the ability to find new customers who match a brand’s target audience. In addition to targeting people based on their interests and other demographics, Facebook offers lookalike audiences that reach users who are similar to an existing list of customers, email subscribers, page followers and more. This type of information allows advertisers to get ads in front of users who are some of the most qualified prospects, but may not fit other targeting practices.
When a user thinks Facebook is listening, there is a good chance that their online behavior simply mirrors someone who has already purchased from a brand. In other words, even if you’ve never looked up ice cream, Facebook may find that people who browse for umbrellas also really like mint chocolate chip.
Unless Facebook comes out and says “yes, we’ve been listening,” it may be hard to ever definitively prove one way or the other. For advertisers though, Facebook’s sheer level of intelligence is a value add. Listening or not, the data available makes it possible to get in front of users who make the most sense as potential customers.
So while not everyone on a lookalike list will be a perfect match, there’s a good chance there’s someone just like you who also has a cat.