How Facebook’s Atlas is rewriting the book on ad targeting and measurement

Facebook recently relaunched Atlas, a suite of ad technology it purchased last year from Microsoft. Alex Horner, senior strategy planner at GPY&R Melbourne, investigates the features of this new offering.

 

Facebook Atlas promises far tighter targeting, true cross-device tracking and measurement of the impact of online ads on offline sales. If it manages it pull these things off successfully, Atlas is going to be a very big deal indeed to us in the advertising world. Let’s break down why:

 

Facebook-style targeting beyond Facebook.com

In the early days of digital advertising, targeting was something of a guessing game. If you needed to raise awareness of a new type of bank account you’d whack an ad on the finance section on Yahoo and hope for the best. Then Google’s AdWords came along and took some of that guesswork away. Suddenly you could serve an ad based on someone searching for terms that were strongly related to your product or service. If you wanted to sell a lawnmower you’d buy ads against cheap lawnmowers or gardening tips.

Then Facebook ads came along and took targeting a few steps further by tapping into the rich data the platform collects on us all. By targeting based on age, gender, location, brands and pages liked and more, the guesswork in ad targeting diminished even further. They also let us use cookies to track users’ behavior on other sites then show users targeted ads once they return to Facebook.com. But what if I wanted to serve such tightly-targeted ads on a site other than Facebook?

Atlas’ first benefit is that it allows advertisers to use the type of sophisticated targeting we’ve become accustomed to on Facebook to serve ads in other, non Facebook.com places.

 

Cross-device tracking and measurement

Our increasing use of mobile devices has made attribution modeling tougher than ever before. Take me as an example: I use a computer at work, one at home, an iPad and a smartphone. Trying to keep track of my purchase journeys back and forth between each channel isn’t just difficult, it’s nigh on impossible with current solutions. Cookies, the technology behind retargeted ads, just aren’t always smart enough to track me across multiple browsers and devices or as Atlas themselves put it “cookies cover a shrinking set of experiences in an evolving digital reality”.

Atlas will fix that problem by linking users’ web browsing, app usage and ad interactions to their Facebook accounts instead, a solution that apparently works across mobile and desktop. Ever wondered how the Facebook share buttons on news articles don’t ask you to login every time you want to post something using them? It’s because your Facebook login details travel with you as you traverse the web. And those sites and apps that let you register and login using Facebook rather than filling out a new username and password? Yup, they can track you and serve ads via Atlas there too.

 

Offline sales tracking

Often considered the holy grail when calculating ROI, tracking the impact of online ads on offline sales has historically been time-consuming and prone to massive inaccuracies. Atlas promises to change that by matching identifying data of a consumer who’s just made a purchase against their Facebook profile.

Here’s an example: I’m exposed to and interact with a couple of ads for Schweppes Tonic Water on a website and an app then subsequently go into a Woolworths and buy a bottle. Assuming I scanned my Everyday Rewards Card when I made a purchase, Schweppes could request that purchase data from Woolworths and pass it on to Facebook who’d match it against their Atlas user profile history. They’d be able to see which ads I was exposed to and interacted with and in which order. Clever stuff.

 

The bottom line

While Facebook has experimented with more intelligent audience tracking and targeting in the past (anyone remember Beacon?), Atlas represents the first time they appear to have gotten it right. In theory at least. Many questions still remain about the methodology behind all the tracking and despite the ubiquity of Facebook, we’re not always going to be logged in on every site or app we use.

All things said, the success of advertising will always come down to relevance. Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg acknowledged this fact when talking about Atlas just after its relaunch: “Forty percent of ads do not reach the right people. Atlas is designed to change that and is all about making ads relevant to the right people.”

The more relevant and measurable they can make ads, the more Facebook and Atlas stand to become advertisers’ best friends.

Alex Horner is senior strategy planner at GPY&R Melbourne