Digital Marketing

What Does Facebook’s “Clear History” Feature Mean for Advertisers?

May 2, 2018


It’s been a busy few months for advertising policy makers and savvy digital marketers—and it’s been especially busy for lawyers at Google and Facebook. A combination of Europe’s GDPR policy and Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal has forced Google and Facebook to make changes to their advertising systems and platforms. Naturally, these policy moves pose some significant changes to advertising and, potentially, to the success of future advertising campaigns. As it relates to Facebook’s announcement of the coming “Clear History” feature, we thought it prudent to analyze the proposal and weigh in on what this might mean for advertisers.

Facebook’s “Clear History”

On May 1st at Facebook’s F8 conference, Mark Zuckerberg announced a plan to build a “Clear History” feature. If the terminology sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen a similar option in your web browser. Much like clearing the history in your browser, you’ll be able to effectively erase your “digital footprint” that advertisers and the Facebook platform use to inform user-targeting and segmentation algorithms.

Clearing your Facebook history will remove all permissions that previously-added apps and websites had to access your data. For many consumers, this will feel like they are taking back control of their digital shadow that has been used by Facebook to make ads more targeted.

Whenever you visit a website that has Facebook’s “Like” button installed—and millions of websites do—that little button sends data back to Facebook, indicating that you’ve been there. This data helps Facebook track your interests and build a profile about you, and this profile is what advertisers use when they’re selecting target audiences based on interests and behaviours. For example, we can currently target people who like action films, actively participate in marathons, and regularly attend craft beer festivals with Facebook’s ad platform. Is this about to change?

What Might This Mean for Advertisers?

From what we’ve read, this policy change does not imply that this type of user data will be deleted from Facebook’s servers; Facebook has only said that this information will be removed “from your account.” One could infer that this subtle nuance means Facebook will still be storing your browser history but will do so in a way that doesn’t identify the individual as the person performing that browsing.

Zuckerberg did warn, however,  that he expects a downside for many users as they’ll be targeted with ads that are less relevant to them.

Should large swaths of Facebook users clear their history on a regular basis, this could have potentially detrimental effects on advertisers who are trying to reach targeted niche audiences. From an optimistic perspective, this change may not necessarily impact larger advertisers—like major CPG companies—who have the luxury of focusing on mass markets. But smaller companies and those with niche products and services, counting on Facebook’s algorithms to segment the market into more relevant slices for a more effective use of their advertising dollars may find a decrease in ROI as a result.

Each time you clear your Facebook history, its algorithms will need to “relearn your preferences”. Herein lies the double-edged sword of sharing so much of our personal lives. The benefit of letting these platforms learn everything about us is that we (in theory) should be marketed things that we actually want and need. Misuse of this data (such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal) will certainly drive consumers to lock down their privacy in ways that we haven’t seen since Facebook burst into our lives over a decade ago. Such abuse of the personal data the platform contains highlights the fact that companies like Facebook can’t maintain the position that they are neutral actors in our new media ecosystem: in order for there to be benefits to all parties—consumers, advertisers and (of course) Facebook— they must do better to protect the integrity of how consumer data is used.   

Facebook has stated this new feature will “take months to build”, so don’t panic just yet. It’s very likely there will be numerous updates to this policy—and its effects on advertisers. We’ll be keeping a close eye on all these changes and how they will impact our clients, and the industry at large.

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