Facebook Knows What You Did Last Summer (And A Whole Lot More)

During my time as a beginning marketing coordinator for MAKA Digital, I’ve developed an affinity for social media advertising. Like most millennials, social media is part of my daily routine, and I’m fascinated with the ways it connects our society in great (and not-so-great) ways. I get a strange sense of satisfaction from posting an ad for a client and then being served that same ad on my personal Facebook newsfeed the next day. To me it’s a tangible representation of something I’ve helped create. (Even if I still have a love-hate relationship with the program in which you create Facebook ads. It never fails to confuse me or work in a way I swear is different from the last time I used it.)

Now that I have an insider’s perspective on social media, I’ve come to realize all the fascinating—and creepy—ways it offers up audiences to advertisers looking to send out an ad. Every time you see a sponsored post or ad on your newsfeed, it’s not just randomized, or a coincidence—it’s targeted specifically toward you because of your activity on the platform and the pages you’ve liked. Facebook, for example, even keeps tabs on your online shopping habits. 

We’ve all browsed for something on the Internet, whether it’s shoes, a DVD set, or a specific kind of car. Over the course of the next few days, that exact product suddenly pops up in ads all over the web, including on your social media. The first time this happened to me, I felt a little unnerved. How did Facebook know that I’d been wanting tickets to Wicked, or that I’d been shopping for new winter boots?

This method of advertising is called retargeting or remarketing, and it’s actually fairly straightforward. Most ecommerce sites track your activity on their site through cookies, and that activity is stored in a database. They then create ads that dynamically fill with whatever items you’d been viewing, and then pay to serve those ads across search engines, partner websites and social media.

And that’s not even the weirdest way that the internet keeps track of your activities.

When an advertiser creates ads on Facebook, they can reach any number of highly specific demographics. You can be targeted based on your job title, estimated income level, or whether or not Facebook believes you to be a parent. There’s specific audience categories for “Fit Moms,” “Soccer Moms,” and even the ambiguous “Trendy Moms.” Do you have a close friend with a birthday coming up? There’s a category for that, too. There’s even a category for Facebook users who have recently returned from vacation.

So how does Facebook know all this? It’s due to the profile information you’ve provided, the life events you’ve posted, things you’ve liked and clicked on while using Facebook, and even the things you do and purchase on the rest of the web (again, often tracked by cookies and other mechanisms).

There’s even been the rumor that Facebook listens to your private conversations through your phone’s microphone and then uses those conversations to serve you tailored ads, but Facebook has since dismissed this claim, saying it only accesses your microphone when you record videos or use another feature that requires audio.

The moral of this story is that Facebook likely knows more information about you than you know about yourself. But this isn’t quite as bad as it seems—because it knows so much about you, it’s able to serve you relevant ads for products and websites that are likely to interest you. If you remove this capability the ads won’t disappear, they’ll just become much more random and disparate to your needs.

And, from a marketing perspective, this Facebook targeting allows advertisers to hone in on the exact groups of people who are likely to find our ad relevant and consequently click on the ad. This gives us the ability to place products in front of appropriate audiences, and it gives you the ability discover new products or return to those you’d been considering. My overall takeaway is that there are much worse things in the world than Facebook knowing you just returned from a trip to Cancún (How about some sunburn cream?).