Facebook’s new retargeting platform — least creepy for higher education?

Published: Thursday, October 17, 2013

Photograph of "academia", according to Google -- a large, academic-looking building.If you’re up on the tech side of digital advertising, then you may have heard that Facebook just, this week, announced a standalone ad re-targeting option through their in-house custom audiences feature (previously relegated only to targeting a provided list of customer/prospect emails or phone numbers and not based on cookie data).

It’s call for a celebration as they’ve unshackled the functionality from third parties, who used to be the sole arbiters of re-targeting capabilities through Facebook’s FBX (Facebook Exchange).

In general, I have to say that I’m not a huge fan of re-targeting as a central advertising strategy. Frankly, it’s a bit creepy. I’m generally not in favor of anything that has my browser history haunting me for months on end.

But, I think often about marketing implementation in the higher ed world (mostly because I spent three years thinking about it while working at Noel-Levitz). And, this struck me as a strong opportunity for their industry in particular as they seem to be in a unique position to re-engage their audience without triggering the same feelings of dastardly intent.

Most companies who use re-targeting suffer because of their inherent specificity. They’re often such clear niche products/services that their use of my tracking data is just all too apparent. Along with that, the off-topic nature of re-targeted ads on the Google Display Network in particular sound my alarm bells every time. I’m reading an article about Elon Musk, why am I seeing an ad for a company that prints photos onto glass? (Answer: I looked at their site a few weeks ago.) 

This seems intuitively less so in the higher ed world, where prospective students within the target age ranges are likely to be quite used to seeing ads from various colleges, even without having visited their sites previously.

In my head at least, the experience seems to feel a bit more like a serendipitous occurrence rather than the same ole techno-stalking that it really is. (If you’ve got any data on this, throw it my way.)

The other major win with the new system is that it seems to have precise behavior targeting capabilities. “A bike retailer could reach people who started designing bikes on its website but didn’t make a purchase,” they explained in the announcement. Obviously, this same kind of control is applicable in higher ed. Schools could, for instance, target visitors who made a visit to the section for prospective students but didn’t complete an inquiry form.

It could be taken even further and fleshed out into an incremental strategy, with separate campaigns targeting students who reached each specific point in the inquiry process and showing them ads meant to get them to complete the next step.

This whole deal is made even sweeter by the fact that recent data shows Facebook’s re-targeted placements through FBX are incredibly cheap.

Like, 10 cents per 1,000 impressions cheap. As in, even if your ads suck and convert horribly it’s still hard to not come out ahead at this price, cheap.

Hopefully, these prices will be similar to those that advertisers find when re-targeting through Facebook directly.

Of course, this whole thing is just a tactic in what is sure to be a much larger digital strategy for most colleges and universities. In fact, it’s not even the only large-scale re-targeting option, as Google’s AdWords and Display Network have offered “remarketing” for some time, leveraging Google Analytics tracking for the source of its browsing data. And, it may not be the most effective way to reach prospective students moving forward, as teens’ interest in Facebook continues toward the dusty trail of MySpace.

But, giving it a try still seems like a sound bet. Especially if the prices hold low, then it’s really a low-cost investment to implement, test, and analyze. (I predict prices will in fact remain low because for some reason people seem to act like Facebook’s advertising platform is level-five-system-engineer caliber work, when it’s really quite simple. I’m not too distraught, though, as that means it’s cheaper and less-competitive for those of us who learn the ropes.)

Facebook has made it fairly straight forward to begin tracking and re-targeting. It’s just the addition of a tracking code (a la Google Analytics) that’s linked to an advertising account.

So, if colleges can wrangle together their team of 68 different gatekeepers of the header code, they could probably have this thing put in place in time for recruitment season of 2020. (Sorry — had to.)

(Side note: I’ve come to my senses about initial caps in my blog post titles. Please forgive me for my sins, I will be a good boy from now on.)

Image from fotoblog.

About me

My name is Tyler Hakes. I'm a digital strategist in Des Moines. I write and tweet about marketing, strategy, media, and technology.

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