Pixels, Muffins And The Real Facebook Ad Network

Tracking FacebookOne of the complaints about Facebook advertising has been the inability to sync any advertiser’s ad campaign efforts with other, non-Facebook, cookie-based efforts. In other words, if you’re a brand marketer looking to raise awareness for a particular product, you’ll need to use Facebook (FB) advertising’s own metrics – which could include anything from demographic data taken from FB registration data to a simple count of “fans” collected during a campaign. Post campaign, the marketer will have to marry that data to the ad server data of the non-Facebook campaign data.

Can you say, “Duplication Dilemma!”

With this method, marketers never know true reach for a campaign which blends with FB and non-FB campaign tactics, for example.

But sources say (thank you, sources), those days are changing as recent campaigns by Chevy and Sheraton on the Facebook home page appear to show a pixel (cookie) getting dropped! Has Facebook caved under advertiser pressure?

Looking at the Facebook “rule” book:

“Data collected as a result of the display of an advertisement to a user (“Impression Tracking Data”) is allowed only on limited advertising products, as designated by Facebook. Impression Tracking Data may not be collected on any bidded advertising products.”

So, I’d take that to mean no tracking allowed through the self-serve product but, hey, “If you’re doing a big deal with us (Facebook), we can work with you.” Money talks.

Given the potential ability of marketers to track users across the Web, understand user interests and, most importantly, interaction with brand campaign efforts, marketers would certainly love to sync that knowledge with the almighty pixel on FB so that they may better understand how to attribute success to each campaign tactic. (Attribution!)

So, why is Facebook banning, or at least relatively “mum” on the pixel?

  1. Enabling the competition – Why enable an advertiser to advertise elsewhere? The long term goal of Facebook could be that of an online service provider like Aol way back when. Or it could create its own Internet as has been suggested by AdExchanger.com in the past.
  2. Privacy – Given the ability to pixel users on Facebook and then retarget them through exchanges and other publishers, this may be perceived as mismanagement of user data. What may be of more concern to Facebook is the the potential for PII (like registration data) tied to user cookies. If these users are retargeted elsewhere with use of PII, with or without users’ permission (yes I just wrote that), this may present privacy concerns.

Now, this isn’t to say Facebook isn’t loving the pixel itself. Right now in the source code for Facebook, there is something called a “muffin tracking pixel”. (source: a tweet from Matt Sokoloff, product manager at adsummos) Muffins, cookies – I love ’em! Anyway, hard to say what this pixel is tracking but it could be a container for its own ad system and could map to other advertiser pixels like any trusty tag management system.

But, to be clear, our source saw the pixel being pushed by Facebook advertisers rather than through “the muffin.” (…and you can quote me on that.)

The Fan Page

What about that Fan page which is created through the “Like” button that might be located on Facebook or “in the wild” on the marketer’s website? The marketer is the one that has brought all this engagement to bear on their Facebook fan page.  Can they at least put a pixel on that landing page which they can then use to understand their users as well as retarget them through exchanges and publishers off of Facebook?

Let’s look at some more FB policy – Section II.6 and Section II.13 of FB Platform policy:

“You will not directly or indirectly transfer any data you receive from us, including user data or Facebook User IDs, to (or use such data in connection with) any ad network, ad exchange, data broker, or other advertising or monetization related toolset, even if a user consents to such transfer or use. By indirectly we mean you cannot, for example, transfer data to a third party who then transfers the data to an ad network. By any data we mean all data obtained through use of the Facebook Platform (API, Social Plugins, etc.), including aggregate, anonymous or derivative data.”

The answer to the retargeting question remains ambiguous.  No, the marketer can’t associate those pixels with any Facebook user IDs which consequently alleviates any privacy concerns or policy violation. But it’s the marketer’s data, too, right?  The marketer receives this data from the user. It could be argued that the marketer’s data collected through a fan page may be A-OK for retargeting through ad networks, exchanges, data brokers and so on.

Would this form of retargeting be in the spirit of Facebook regulations? – probably not.  Does Facebook want happy marketers – YES!

The Like Button

Let’s be clear.  Facebook is the king of the cookie, muffin or whatever you want to call it. The Facebook “Like” button litters the web in an amiable way (Like!) in order to give easy entry to Facebook and communities of users with common interests as well as informing the Facebook “big data” machine.  Someday, the Facebook ad network may get unlocked so that sites around the web could benefit from the Facebook cookie.  More likely  is an attribution machine that Facebook enables for advertisers as those “Like” pixels surely reach 90%+ of all Internet users given the company’s 700 million global unique reach.  “You want to know what your user is up to, Marketer maven? We’ve got it all pulsing through the veins of our ‘Like’ network.” This also forces publishers to steadily move more content on to Facebook where… yes, there’s a Facebook ad network on Facebook!   I’ll guess that’s the future of the Facebook ad network – incentivizing publishers to move content on to Facebook.  Facebook could offer a great revenue share with its relatively low cost content management sytem and slowly disintermediate Google AdSense and its rev share from the publisher.  Suddenly search would become more important on Facebook and an 80% rev share enjoyed by a few Google DFP clients today could be the revenue share for all Facebook publishers in Facebook’s ad network/content management system tomorrow – and that’s just for starters.

The content server merges with the ad server and becomes the Facebook Internet server.

By John Ebbert

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  1. Facebook did have a post impression tracking solution available to self serve advertisers up until around July or August 2010. It dropped a cookie and allowed one to see post impression conversions on any website from any facebook ad (regardless of whether the ad pointed to a fb page or an external website). I used the product and was somewhat surprised when facebook announced that they would be not continuing with the product and moving it out of beta. I was even more surprised when I asked my facebook acct manager why this decision was made, he didn’t really even know of the product!!

    My assumption is that there was not enough demand for these metrics from advertisers at the time. Even though there should have been as these metrics are obviously so important. The thing is that facebook enjoyed a rocket ship like launch of their adserver platform and inventory without scrutiny of what we should all actually be measuring or asking to be measurable.

    Think back to the launch of adwords, Google eventually had to buy an analytics platform to help sell their inventory to the big brand advertisers and train people how to measure adwords in order to prove value. Facebook rocketed to fame with everyone focusing on all the huge brands that jumped on the wagon seemingly due to the shear reach of this new social platform.

    Now that there is demand for post impression tracking on external sites for facebook inventory, the horse has bolted. Facebook have the advertising sales volume without the need to prove its true value. And now we will all have to pay even more to get this vital info.

    From a marketers perspective – frustrating. From an entrepreneurs perspective – another master stroke from the facebook strategy playbook!

  2. I’m seriously contemplating the irony that you can “like” this article. Great post, John!

  3. You can’t retarget your Facebook fans across the web. Yet. However…

    Earlier this year, Facebook made a shift away from FBML (its own markup language) to iframes for Tab applications. Also, “Fan Pages” and “Applications” look a lot more like one another when it comes to the user in Facebook.

    What this means, though, is that marketers might be able to have their cake and eat it (kinda) – when driving campaigns within Facebook to a fan page. They can drive to an iframe tab within their fan page (which can be from an application) and inside that application they can drop a pixel. That pixel should obviously NOT contain FB IDs or anything else that could identify the user, but it seems that it would be okay to then retarget the user based on them having seen this particular iframed content within the tab.

    The marketer may drive traffic from a Facebook ad (hopefully administered by a system like our Facebook tool, optim.al) to this tab and for those visitors might be able to retarget them off of Facebook later.

    {Note the ability to retarget has always been available to people who are using a click redirect (which is the only solution that allows marketers to track conversions as well, for example, and which we built into our tools to make life easier for marketers), but usually they would give up the social capabilities inherent in the ads because to Facebook this is an ad being driven to an outside page, not staying within the Facebook ecosystem.}