We often hear how people are scared of all the data Google and Facebook are collecting about us, and how they know everything about us. But do they really?
I agree that there is a ton of problems in the US around data brokers and how data is being collected and shared without my consent. In fact, most of the standard practices that we see in the US are illegal in many parts of Europe.
For instance, in my country (Denmark), companies are not allowed, by law, to share personally identifiable data with third parties. This pretty much eliminates data brokers from even existing. It's also illegal for companies to collect information about me that isn't directly related to the product I'm buying.
If I go down to Ford to look at a car, Ford is not allowed to write down what type of clothes I'm wearing. This data isn't relevant to buying a car and as such cannot be collected by law.
This is one reason why there is so much friction between US tech companies and the EU. Our definition of privacy is much, much stronger.
But what I don't agree with is the notion that Facebook is scary because, let's face it, it's not very good at targeting ads.
When was the last time you went to Facebook and said, "Yes, this ad is just what I wanted!"
Right? That almost never happens. Most of the time you say, "Why are you showing me this crap? I will never buy this in a million years!"
And it's not just Facebook. This is true on any channel. We talk so much about big data, tracking, and advertising... but the ads aren't really that relevant.
In fact, Twitter recently admitted as much when their US head of sales said this:
We can provide the same level of deliverable results that we can with logged-in users.
In other words, whether they know who you are or not doesn't really change how the ad performs.
But let me give you a practical example.
You can go over to Facebook and see exactly what things it thinks you are interested in, or what it calls your 'Ad preferences'. And the result is never that good.
Here is what Facebook thinks it knows about me.
First, we have what businesses and industries it thinks I like:
Business and industry: Restoration Hardware, Porsche, BBC, Internet television, SpaceX, Science, The Walt Disney Company, Facebook, Pixar, Google, Nieman Foundation for Journalism, NASA, Designer, Facebook, Developers, Futurist, Telecommunication, Mass media, Physics, Porsche Design Group.
I do love SpaceX, NASA, futurism, and science in general. But, you have to be very specific in what you are trying to advertise before I would even consider buying anything related to those keywords.
Yes, I would probably buy a great book about the history of NASA and space exploration. No, I probably wouldn't buy a t-shirt with a picture of the moon on it.
I also do like Disney and Pixar. I have watched every single Pixar movie ever made. In fact, I own every one of them... including the original shorts from when Pixar first started. So, it's kind of right.
Then we have the vague categories like BBC, internet television, telecommunication, and mass media. Am I interested in those? Well... yes-ish. But I cannot imagine any ad targeting where those vague terms would appeal to me in any way.
My interest in the BBC, for instance, is as a media analyst. I don't have any special feelings towards any of their shows. They are good, but that's not why I'm interested in them.
And then we have Porsche, but I will get back to that.
The next category is education, and... it's weird.
Education: Interaction design, founder, Sound, List of artistic media.
Yes, I am a founder of my own company, and yes, I do think interaction design is important in the digital world. But these topics are completely useless in terms of advertising. Sound? List of artistic media?? What?
Then we have the fitness category:
Fitness and wellness: Walking.
Here it thinks I like walking. I don't like walking at all... I find it to be absolutely boring. The only thing I hate more than walking is running. Skiing, on the other hand, now that's fun.
Then we come to food.
Food and drink: Gluten
I'm quite surprised by this, considering how many times I have posted about food, but apparently, Facebook thinks I'm interested in gluten.
Nope! Not even close. In fact, my interest would be if food were gluten-free. There is quite a difference between those two things.
Then we come to hobbies...
Hobbies and activities: Luxury vehicle, Drawing, Sports car, Porsche 911, Porsche, Panamera, Mars, Porsche Carrera GT, Image, Porsche 918, Metal, Porsche 993, Porsche 997, Porsche 911 GT2, Comic strip, Porsche 996, Porsche 934, Porsche 964, Porsche 924, Porsche 718, Porsche 968, Porsche 904, Porsche 787, Porsche 906, Porsche Supercup, Porsche RS Spyder.
Apparently, Facebook thinks I have a deep and incredible passion for Porsches. I don't. Or rather, I do like Porsche for its design, which is also why I follow Mercedes and Audi over at Instagram. But I will never actually buy a Porsche.
If you gave me $100,000 to buy a car, I would by a Range/Land Rover... or possibly a Jeep. I love dirt roads. In fact, when I was looking to buy my last car and I took it for a test drive, I returned it to the dealer with mud on the roof.
I don't want a Porsche.
The other categories? Image, metal? What does that even mean? Although, I do like drawing and Mars.
Then we come to my lifestyle...
Lifestyle and culture: Bible, Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten, Instant messaging, Future, Porsche in motorsport, Technology (late adopters), All mobile devices, iPad Air, Tablet Owners, Smartphones and tablets, Primary Browser: Chrome, New smartphone and tablet owners, Facebook Page Admins, All Android devices, All iOS devices, Smartphone Owners, Primary OS Mac OS X, WiFi Connection, Generation X, Relationship status: single, Baekdal.com, Entrepreneurship.
No, Facebook. I'm not at all interested in either the Bible, the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Genesis (which you will see below). As an agnostic, I don't consider religion to have any role in my life, and I definitely don't want to be targeted with religious advertising.
Facebook is right about me being single though, although all that seems to do is to expose me to a constant stream of dating ads, which is the most annoying form of advertising in existence. I absolutely hate dating ads (and dating sites in general). I consider them to be shallow and pointless and not what I would consider real love.
Facebook is also right that I'm Generation X, but I also consider myself to be a digital native. So, how would targeting me with Gen-X ads be relevant to me? It wouldn't.
And Facebook is obviously right that I'm interested in mobiles, tablets and those other devices. That's not really a secret, and they are way too broad for any specific targeting. But they also think i'm interested in 'Technology (late adopters)'... really, Facebook? Really?
Anyway, let's look at news interests.
News and entertainment: Spotify, Visual arts, TV, Discovery Channel, Instagram, tina dickow, Disney Pixar, Walk off the Earth, mythbusters, Nieman Journalism Lab, Figment (website), Tron: Legacy, Dirty Jobs, tron, Hebrew Bible, Bratz, Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe, Garfield (character), Garfield and Friends, Book of Genesis, Garfield's Fun Fest, Tron: Uprising, Ichi (2008 film), walk off earth, Jidaigeki.
All of this is mostly just crap. They are topics that I only have fleeting interest in, but not in an passionate way. There are two exceptions. I love Tron and I have always loved Garfield. The rest? Meh...
The inclusion of Ichi (2008 movie) is a bit funny though (and a complete fail). I have never watched that movie, but in the mid-2000s, I did work with a fashion company called ICHI. So, no Facebook, I'm not interested in that movie, but I was once interested professionally in a fashion brand... but that was 10 years ago.
But what about people?
People: Avinash Kaushik, Darren Rowse, Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg, Tom Clancy, Tina Dico, Carl Sagan, Chris Ryan, Michio Kaku, Mike Rowe, dr michio kaku, Isaac Asimov, Garfield, Guy Verhofstadt, Eve Ensler, Jim Davis (cartoonist), Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Sarah Blackwood.
This one is actually somewhat good. Well, mostly anyway. Avinash is brilliant and always worth following on any channel, Elon Musk is inspiring, Isaac Asimov is my favorite author of all time, and I have read all of Tom Clancy's books. And Dr. Michio Kaku is always worth listening to.
Other people like Darren Rowse, Sheryl Sandberg and Guy Verhofstadt are interesting because of their professions.
Abraham? Eh... is that another religious reference I don't care about? And I have no idea who Eve Ensler is.
Now we come shopping interests...
Shopping and fashion: Porsche Design, Foundry.
Uh... no. Again, I'm not going to buy a Porsche (anything)... and Foundry? What's that?
It's the same with what Facebook thinks are my sports and outdoor interests:
Sports and outdoors: Detroit Pistons, Sports car racing, Mutts.
I actually had to look it up because I couldn't remember what sport the Detroit Pistons is. It's apparently a basketball team in Detroit. I'm sorry, Facebook. I have not watched a basketball game in 20 years.
Sports racing? Well... yes-ish. I do very much like the 24 hours of Le Mans, and I occasionally watch other races. But I'm not a really fan.
And then we have Mutts. It's a comic strip (and a good one), but what does that have to do with sports and outdoors?
But, surely technology is my thing, right?
Technology: Cosplay, Streaming media, Electric car, Computers, Social network, Trendalyzer.
Cosplay? How is that technology? More to the point, while I am interested in cosplayers, it's not because of the actual cosplaying, but mostly because of the creativity and geeky passion they put into it.
Here is an example of a very geeky cosplayer you might have heard about and that I like:
I love it!
What I love about this, is the model making/building part. I'm not really interested in the cosplaying itself. On Facebook, for instance, I also follow Volpin Probs, who is a brilliant prop maker.
Trendalyzer is another miss of sorts.
If you don't know this, Trendalyzer is the tool Hans Rosling uses for his presentations, and Hans Rosling is one of my absolute heroes (but not listed under people Facebook thinks I like). So, I'm not really interested in Trendalyzer, as such. But I am interested in whatever new things Hans Rosling is working on.
As for the other topics? Yes, I do love the future of electric cars, and I'm obviously interested in computers (although I don't care about computer ads).
Finally, we have travel and places:
Travel, places and events: Merlin (rocket engine family), Yorba Linda, California, Formula One, Italy, Denmark, Outer space, Jilin, Revello.
This one is just completely useless.
Merlin is the rocket engine SpaceX use, and I am very interested in SpaceX... but how is this a 'travel, places and events'?
Yorba Linda is apparently a small town in California, but I had no idea before I looked it up, and I have no idea why Facebook thinks I like that.
Formula One? Meh.
Jilin? No idea... it's apparently a place in China close to the border of North Korea, but I had never heard about it before seeing it in this list of things Facebook thinks I'm interested in.
Italy? Well, it's a nice country, and I have been there a couple of times. It's not my preferred travel destination though (too warm, not enough snow). And Revello? I assume they mean the small province in Italy which I have never visited, or maybe they are talking about the ice-cream which I have never tasted (especially considering I'm allergic to the milk in it).
The only topic that I really agree with is 'outer space'. I would love to travel to outer space one day.
So, you see the problem here?
Facebook has built up this profile of things that it thinks I care about, but it doesn't really know me at all. Most of the things are something that I may have come across in the past, but it's not really something I care about. Some of the things are flat out wrong and would annoy me if they started targeting me with ads about them, while a very few topics are things I care deeply about, but in such a specific way that general advertising related to them would not be relevant anyway.
However, there is one more thing Facebook completely missed about me and that is all the things they don't know about me. And with this I mean that Facebook completely fails to identify anything that is actually important to me.
For instance, they fail to know that I'm deeply passionate about writing. They don't understand that I have become a foodie and that I love to experiment with food. They have no understanding about my professional life except that I'm a founder at Baekdal.com. But no topic of interest links to me being a media analyst.
And there are so many other topics that Facebook seems to have completely missed about me. All the topics that Facebook thinks I'm interested in are all the low-hanging fruits that aren't really that important to me. It doesn't seem to know anything about what I really care about, well, except for two or three things.
If you think this is bad on Facebook, all the other channels are just as bad. Over at YouTube, the 'Trending' tab is pretty much a list of all the videos I would never ever want to see.
On Twitter, 9 out of 10 ads I see every day are for server solutions. I don't care about server solutions. I'm a digital media analyst, not an IT worker.
And on Instagram this morning, I accidentally hit the Discover tab where they recommended that I watch people fight or being in a car crash, two topics that I consider just as idiotic as all those posts about Trump we see every day.
This is not targeting. This is anti-targeting. This is 'let's find the most idiotic, the most shallow, and the least interesting content possible, and then recommend that'.
A few hours later I thought I would check again, and now Instagram showed me this (but the fighting stuff was still further down the list):
The reason I see this is probably because I follow Dr. Paige Jarreau. She is an amazing person who has done a lot very interesting work into how scientists do science communication. And this is why I follow her as a media analyst.
And I also follow her on Instagram. Here she often posts about her hobby, which is to do aerial silk. And she is very talented at it.
But this is not why I follow her. I follow her because of her person and her work. I don't follow her because of her personal hobby.
Instagram, however, in its very simplistic pattern matching thinks that this is the reason. It noticed that I followed her, matched her posts to a keyword, and then decided that this is all I'm interested in as well.
No, Instagram. You are completely wrong about this.
In fact, the Instagram Discover tab is pretty much a list of accounts that I have no interest in following, ever.
I could say the same about Google's ad targeting, where you are constantly exposed to remarketing ads that you have no interest in. This is particularly a problem when working in the media, because then, as a result of my work, I come across a lot of websites that have no relation to myself as a person.
I can only assume, for instance, this is why Facebook thinks I'm a fan of the Detroit Pistons. I have probably looked at something in relation to it when I was analyzing a US media site.
I'm reminded of this tweet.
My point is not just to bitch about the absolutely terrible way social media algorithms work and how poorly targeted they really are. It's also to illustrate that this field of interest based targeting is fundamentally flawed.
I have written about this in several of my other articles, illustrating how advertising today completely misses the important factors, which are people's actual intent, the real reason why people connected, and the context of what we are doing.
Look at this example from a Danish yachting magazine with ads for a safari in Africa or a plane trip to Las Vegas.
I can only assume they are matching... uhm... 'vacation'? Maybe?
So, they are suggesting that because I'm interested in going on a vacation, I should jump on a plane and fly to a place where there is no water anywhere... on a yachting magazine site?
This is a joke, people. This doesn't work.
And I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that we are simply heading in the wrong direction here. I don't think we can fix this by just optimizing the data and refining the algorithms.
To me, it seems this is fundamentally flawed and that we are simply looking at the wrong signals. And it's not just the ads, it's also how our social feeds are algorithmically ranked. The content that we see isn't bad, but it's also not that good.
I wrote about this previously, where I illustrated how ranking four different fruits often leads to the mediocre one being chosen as the best one. On social channels this means you get to see a ton of rather mediocre content that a lot of people engage with, but you rarely see the really good stuff because those are too niche and too narrow to get the engagement they need to be ranked.
We need a different solution here, because we are optimizing for the wrong thing.
I don't know what that solution is, of course. If I did I would be a billionaire by now. But the first step to solving a problem is to realize that we have a problem, and that we are heading in the wrong direction.
We are focusing too much on what and who people are. And almost nothing on why.
Let's try to change that.
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Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter
"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé