Should Publishers Panic Over Facebook’s 98 Ad-Targeting Data Points?

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Facebook keeps growing like Jack’s Beanstalk, so the number meter in my head doesn’t always ring that loudly when the social media platform registers a new first. But then I read the recent story in the Washington Post headlined “98 Personal Data Points That Facebook Uses to Target Ads to You.” My meter made a loud sound with that number.

Here are those 98 data points, compiled by Post reporter Caitlin Dewey. There are flaws in them, she acknowledges — flaws I detailed in my own experience with targeted ads. But, Dewey says, “generally speaking, they’re good enough to have made Facebook an advertising giant. In the second quarter of 2016, the company made $6.4 billion in advertising, a number that’s up 63 percent from the year before.”

Should news organizations be in a panic about Facebook’s 98 data points to target users with tailored ads?

I put the question to Bill Densmore, who, as a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, is part of a team primarily from the publishing industry that is trying to develop a new business model for news organizations. I’ve done several columns about the model – including here and here. Called the Information Trust Exchange, it would be built around monetizing every news article and video so news sites would not be so dependent on advertising.

Here’s what Densmore said:

“I’ve been told that some of the third-party ad networks aggregate many hundreds of data points on an individual — perhaps thousands.

“The important questions to ask are how accurate those data points are? How current are they?  Do they reflect inferred behavior or expressed behavior? What is/are the sources of the data point? And has the end user has the opportunity to review them for accuracy before they are used for anything?

”Then there’s another important question to ask: Is advertising most effective when it is micro-targeted to individuals, or when it is targeted to an interest cohort that might be reached because they all subscribe to a special-interest magazine, or a newspaper serving a particular geography, or a niche web service.  What makes an ad work? Is it context, or precise targeting to an individual? Are we going to make different ads for each person, if we could?”

The ITE would offer advertisers user profiles that would be more reliable because they would come from the publishers own subscriber lists and not sometimes questionable third parties. I asked Densmore if the ITE could match Facebook’s 98 data points for ad targeting: “Yes, I expect the ITE could certainly be designed to support the exchange of 90 or more attributes about individuals — perhaps many more.  But it is another question whether it should enable that, from either a business or a privacy-by-design point of view.”

I also went to Don Marti, strategic adviser to Mozilla’s web-sustainability team and who works with Densmore on the ITE “proof-of-concept” team.

”When you do the math, Facebook works out to lowest-value-per-minute ads x insanely-high-number-of-user minutes = real money,” said Marti. “The main question for news sites is: how can you run ads that are worth more per minute, since you don’t have as many minutes in front of the user as Facebook does? The answer is not more targeting, but more signaling” — where, through tracking protection, the focus is narrowed from targeting’s commodity eyeballs to those belong to users who are on the customer’s journey toward a buying decision.

Businesses are rushing to Facebook with their advertising – that’s reality. But another reality is that an international survey of users found that local news was their favorite among eight categories of news.

If that’s so, then why don’t the publishers of local and community news return that goodwill with better content? Wouldn’t better content that captures the spirit and character of the community bring more user clicks with higher CPMs? It happens regularly at 30A, which covers the Gulf Coast beach communities of West Florida, making the site the top revenue producer on Michele’s List.

Facebook’s beanstalk grows figuratively into the clouds. Maybe the publishers should stay focused on what’s happening closer to ground level, where their users live.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.