Home > Uncategorized > A Targeted Ad on Social Media that Worked!

A Targeted Ad on Social Media that Worked!

In an imagined happy future, targeted advertising brings you what you want when you want it, alerting you to quality products and services you actually need.  It’s a win-win—the consumer is happy, the vendor is happy, and the social media sites that made the targeting possible are happy. But it’s not working quite like that yet, is it? 
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Several weeks ago I went shopping for a new clock for my office and my kitchen.  I made my purchases.  And the next day my Facebook page was still covered in clock ads.  The sites I was shopping on (Amazon and Etsy) shared the fact that I was interested in clocks with Facebook (probably through ‘cookies’—little pieces of information stored by the sites I accessed on my computer.)  It’s weeks later, and I am still getting clock ads.  I have never been less likely to buy a clock—I just bought two.  

Or take the case of my son’s bathing suit.  We bought him a matching bathing suit and swim shirt a few months ago, and got the suit one size too small.  It fit him in March, but doesn’t still fit him now in June.  Ooops.  The top still fits, so a couple days ago I went on the Gymboree website to see if we could get him the bottom a size bigger.  Unfortunately, they’re out of his size.  Ah well.  But a picture of that bathing suit is still showing up as my top ad on Facebook.  I think it’s taunting me. Image

When you think of the data and social subtlety required to solve these problems, it seems like a daunting task.  OK, the first one might not be so bad—maybe if someone actually completed a clock purchase, the system should infer that they might not be interested in more clocks?  But it’s hard to fathom how they could solve the bathing suit case.  From the data trail I left, it looks like I might be interested in that suit but hesitated.  The idea of a system that would have enough data to solve the problem is frightening.  A system that knows the browsing was for my son and not for a gift, and knows my son’s correct size? I can’t always get his size right myself.

So it was with genuine appreciation that earlier this week I realized I had received a social media ad that worked—it was what I wanted, when I wanted it.  PhD student Casey Fiesler posted on her Facebook page several weeks ago that she recommends the book Ready Player One.  She said it was the first good cyberpunk she’d read since Snowcrash.  She included a link to the book on Amazon.  I had a look, and decided to buy it.  It is quite possibly the geekiest piece of media in any form I have ever encountered—and I loved it.  It’s a page turner. 

What I didn’t realize until this week is that it was not entirely accidental that I saw it in Casey’s Facebook newsfeed.  Facebook offers ‘promoted posts’—you can pay a few dollars to increase the chance that your friends will see something you post.  If you have more than a few Facebook friends, you likely are seeing only a fraction of what your friends are posting. The algorithm that determines what you see and don’t is proprietary.  Did Casey pay to promote her post?  Of course not.  Amazon did.  Amazon is paying Facebook to raise the profile of postings that include URLs to products on their site.  My friend genuinely recommended that book to me—Amazon just helped make sure I saw it. Violá—a targeted ad that made everyone happy!  I hope they invent more clever techniques for win-win advertising.

Addendum:
Sean Munson points out that this technique results in people seeing links to Amazon products with joke reviews over and over. Some people post links to products just because the reviews are funny–like the infamous Bic for Her pen reviews, where one review was found helpful by currently over 31,000 people. But I saw that post so many times that it became maddening. Two key points: 1) There is such a thing as over-promoting, and 2) Social subtlety is hard!

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