How facebook uses your data to sell ads!

The last week saw a furore in the media about how an analytics firm Cambridge Analytica was using illegally sourced facebook data to influence election results. And the illegal sourcing of user data, which facebook users expect to be closely guarded by facebook, was rightly lambasted across the board.

However, what most of us don't realise is that facebook (and Google and others) are already selling that data to anyone who has a facebook page. Yes, you read it right! Anybody with a facebook page!

And anybody can start a facebook page in 5 minutes flat by visiting this link! This link is seen when you click on the small arrow, at the top right on your facebook homepage.

And this is what creating a facebook page looks like!

Now as you know, facebook has data that it gathers from millions of its users. And this data starts from something as mundane like your gender, age and geographic location and goes into details like brands the user prefers and the user's personal interests and views. How does facebook make money using all this data? As I mentioned, they sell it to these page owners!

Once a page is created and the page owner starts putting up posts, facebook starts persuading the page owner to Boost Page and Boost Post. These are basically prompts to the page owner to start using ads to attract users' attention. These prompts look like the ones shown in the screenshot from my page below.

And once the page owner clicks the Boost option, he gets access to all the data facebook has gathered from all of its users over the years. No Cambridge Analytica or any other third party required.

The Campaign Objective

The screen that comes up on clicking "Boost Post" looks like this! The very first option the page owner gets is to set the objective of the campaign. Objectives can be getting post engagement, driving website visits or driving messages from potential customers.

Click on image for a detailed view

The next step is setting up the audience of your post, which I'll take up later.

The Ad Budget

Once the audience is setup, you decide the budget and duration of the post. This allows you to set up how many people you want to reach, how many days you want to run the campaign and the toal money you want to spend on the campaign.

And the minimum spend can be as low as INR 40 per day.

The expected reach with different ad spends is as follows.

What this means is that any page owner can access the rich data facebook has gathered on millions of users, for a mere 40 rupees per day. And with that he can start targeting thousands of facebook users with ads on a daily basis. Mind-boggling? Read ahead to see why, this is just the beginning.

The Audience Selection (the magic happens here)

And with that we come to the most important section of your facebook ad planning, the audience selection - the most important part of any ad campaign.

A successful ad is one which is seen by the audience that was intended to be targeted. In earlier days, businesses only had media like radio, TV and newspapers which were viewed by a wide, varied audience and there was no means of gauging who actually viewed your ads. And therefore, there was no way of targeting specific ads to specific audiences.

All that changed with the digital revolution.

Every click, by every person, can be, and will be tracked. Firms like facebook and Google have been storing this data for years now. And these firms now have such a rich collection of data that they can look at an user-id and tell whether the particular user is a Marvel fan or a DC fan, a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian, a follower of cricket or football and last but not the least a Congi, Bhakt or an AAPtard.

And facebook does not just store it, it sells it! It sells it to any page owner with 40 rupees to spare for an ad campaign.

Coming back to the Audience selection for a facebook ad, this is what the screen shows. As you can see, the page owner has an option to choose the audience of the ad by selecting people through targeting. This targeting can be by the audience's gender, age, location and, lastly and most importantly, interests.

When the page owner clicks on the "Edit" link, he gets to choose the various audience parameters including interests. In this case, since the post is about Tintin (my first, and last viral post which you can read here), I would choose a relatively younger audience in India who have liked the Tintin page on facebook and are therefore interested in Tintin.

Now this gives me an approximate audience of 93,000 people who have expressed interest in Tintin and are in the age group 13-35 and reside in India. Once the ad is active, one by one these 93,000 people will see ads with my post about Tintin, when they log-in to facebook. Each time the ad is shown a specific amount will be deducted from my ad budget. And the ad continues running till my allocated budget runs out.

Great for the page owner, because he gets to show his content to an interested audience.
Great for the facebook users, because they get to see content they are interested in.
Great for facebook, since the money is flowing in.

So why exactly is everyone complaining about facebook's data ?
Read on to know why.

As long as interests like Tintin are used to drive ads, I think everybody is fine. But as I said facebook  has data about thousands of attributes. Where you work, your wedding anniversary, the number of kids you have, the political party you support, whether your relationship status is "complicated". facebook knows everything. And facebook will use each and every piece of information to sell ads.

Want to target people working with TCS? Right away!

The page owner can choose from Demographics, Interests and Behaviours.

And the page owner can choose from a myriad set of attributes as seen in the screen below. And this is just a sample, the actual list is endless, with facebook throwing up suggestions as well.

Click on image for a detailed view

So when you see an ad on facebook, remember that it wasn't chance that you came across that ad. Somebody has paid money to ensure that facebook shows you that ad. And you were chosen based on the data you shared with facebook, and which facebook sells to anyone who will pay it. So when you share data with facebook, (or for that matter any service, especially the free ones) that data will be used  to target you.

If you are OK with seeing a couple of targeted ads, everybody is happy. But remember that these businesses will try to use the information about you to entice you to do what they want you to.
These ads would "nudge" you to buy their new TV or try their new shampoo or vote for their party representative.

(However, I do wonder if any amount of nudging will persuade me to try Fair and Handsome.
Ditto with changing people's political preference, I guess)

Which brings me to the last piece! If you are seeing a lot of facebook ads from OpIndia, SwarajyaMag, Republic and the like, the following screen might be how those ads are being targeted at you! Notice how "intelligently" facebook throws up those targeting suggestions!

Satark rahein, Surakshit rahein!! 😃

PS: In the next post, you can read up on how to control what data facebook uses to target ads at you.

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