Is Interest Targeting Useless? (Facebook Ads)

Are Facebook Ads useful? Are they useless? Am I reaching the people Facebook says I’m reaching? How accurate is Facebook’s targeting? How can I effectively target my audience on Facebook? These answers, and more:

Article Difficulty Level: Beginner

There’s been a lot of debate recently over Facebook Ads. Facebook has been taking flak from almost every direction, and Ads are no exception. Ironically enough, they are currently being simultaneously criticized for collecting too much data on people, and for not having accurate data on people.

Last week, NPR published a very poorly researched and biased piece on the supposed inaccuracy of Facebook’s ad targeting. They only sought commentary from one side of the debate, causing quite a stir in the online marketing community. The article reads more like an attempt at investigative journalism rather than a public interest news story. But is it accurate? When you target people on Facebook by their interests, does it actually reach only those people?

For the beginners here, let me explain what I’m talking about.

Facebook makes its money off of ads. The reason why people spend so much money (over $40Bn last year) on Facebook ads is because of their ability to target specific people using various criteria. This makes advertising much more efficient because it reduces the amount of money you waste advertising to people who aren’t potential customers.

Facebook has over 10,000 data points on every single one of its users, on average. They collect that from numerous sources – information they submit, pages they like – but also from third parties, like public records, credit card companies, etc. Facebook does not have a way for anyone to see all of the data on a specific person, advertisers simply give Facebook a targeting criteria and Facebook goes out and finds everyone that meets it, and shows them the ads. This is their selling point to advertisers: spend money with us and reach ONLY your audience, saving money and increasing your profit margins.

So what is Interest Targeting, specifically? Interest Targeting is what Facebook is facing criticism over, so it’s important to understand what it is. Interest Targeting is when you target people on Facebook by selecting any of Facebook’s massive database of criteria. You can target people who are interested in specific topics, or by their demographic information, or by personal attributes. All of these fall under Interest Targeting. But isn’t this how I just described Facebook Ads overall?

As it turns out, Interest Targeting is only a small part of what Facebook Ads has to offer. It is the original method of targeting users that has been around since Day 1, but it has largely been replaced by more advanced techniques and tools. Personally, it has been months since I’ve used any form of interest targeting at any level. Interest Targeting is still used by beginners as an introductory method, but it is not what professionals use.

Interest Targeting is not as accurate as the general public seems to think. And, guess what? It never has been. Professionals know this. Facebook doesn’t claim anything to the contrary. When it was initially rolled out, it was by far the most advanced and accurate advertising platform ever seen by man – relatively speaking. It hasn’t become inaccurate, our standards for accuracy have simply changed. As the advertising world has evolved, so have our expectations. Even Facebook claims that it’s only around 80 percent accurate. My general estimate is that it’s around 60-70 percent accurate. Ten years ago, that was revolutionary. Now, people are filing lawsuits when a couple of their campaigns don’t meet their expectations.

Lookalike Audiences and Custom Audiences are what professionals use to target people. Interest Targeting is often a good hook for salespeople to use when talking to average business owners because that’s all they will understand, but it shouldn’t be what digital marketing teams are primarily using on the back end anymore. 60-70 percent accuracy in today’s world is amateurish. And that’s why I’m personally a bit irritated at these lawsuits and at the recent NPR article. Not only are they taking for granted and even looking down on a technology that was revolutionary just a few years ago, but they are displaying their ignorance on the topic when they stake their public reputation on something they clearly know nothing about.

Custom Audiences are audiences that you generate – customer lists, your existing page likes, people who have viewed a video you uploaded, people who visited your website, etc. These are 100% accurate forms of targeting, but they take serious time and money to build. It is important to note that you can’t actually see a list of everyone on any of these audiences unless you are the one that directly uploaded it in a spreadsheet.

Lookalike Audiences are AI – generated audiences that are statistically similar to one or more of your Custom Audiences. You can take a Custom Audience and have Facebook find a certain percentage of the people in a country that share the most common denominators with that source audience. Lookalike Audiences are about 90-95 percent accurate when done correctly, in my experience. However, doing them correctly takes a high level of technical expertise. I explain Lookalike Audiences in more detail here.

Let’s be clear: this controversy is just a cry for attention. It is fake outrage. It is a pathetic attempt by a group of individuals to insert themselves into the recent Facebook controversy for the free press. And, shamefully, NPR gave them that attention without even bothering to do any research or seek an opposing point of view. These companies suing Facebook spent a small amount of money on a beginner-level advertising tool, and threw a temper tantrum when the results were ONLY several times more cost-effective than anything else they could have spent that money on. If I was a business owner reading this lawsuit that had never spent money on Facebook Ads, I would imagine I’d actually be very impressed by the results, and would consider purchasing ads. This is actually happening right now – the recent controversy surrounding Facebook has spurred a sharp spike in advertising revenue because it has educated average business owners on what Facebook can accomplish for them. This is also why you are seeing a spike in uneducated business owners purchasing ads using Interest Targeting… It’s all over the news.

Facebook ads should be left to the professionals. When Facebook first opened up their ads platform to everyone, the barrier of entry was virtually nonexistent. It was extremely simple, and anyone could do it. But it has evolved into something far more complex. Since Facebook Ads is a dynamic bidding platform, the increased competition requires exponentially higher levels of expertise in order to achieve a profitable ROI. And if you don’t understand what that means, you shouldn’t be running Facebook Ads.

It takes a long time to learn how to run Facebook ads that are successful. It is very complex and highly technical. The perception that “anyone can do it” is outdated. Anyone can do graphic design, but that doesn’t mean you can create something good enough to sell without months or years of training and practice. If you are a business owner at any level, you need to realize this.

If you are going to run Facebook ads yourself and be successful, you need to be prepared to spend months learning the system, and thousands of dollars in education, testing, and experimentation. If you aren’t prepared to do that, you should hire a professional, someone with years of experience. Don’t hire a brand new “digital marketing agency” with a collective few months of experience under their belt. Vet the team selling you their services, and make sure they have proven expertise. Freelancers are a good option, but you should always demand case studies and client recommendations and make sure they span at least a year or so.

Facebook isn’t easy. Don’t take it for granted. If you invest time and resources into it, it’ll pay off. But if that is your intention, make sure you do it right.

Here is where I’m sure you expected to see a sales pitch. Nah. You can’t hire me. I have a full time job and two side businesses, and my free time is for my family. I’m just a nerd that likes to write. If you like this content and want to support me making more, though, you can join my Patreon.

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