We’ve all been there. You’re having a conversation with a friend about a product he or she wants you to try. Later that day, you’re scrolling Facebook and bam! Eerily, there’s an ad on your timeline for that EXACT product. Your flags are raised. You look over each shoulder, crouch in the shadows, and suddenly, you feel vulnerable. Is Facebook listening to us? Seeing digital ads after talking about something may lead you to think so.
There’s a reason this is happening, but “listening” is probably not it.
Talking about something and seeing a digital ad for it. Thinking about something and seeing a digital ad for it. Even dreaming about something and seeing a digital ad for it.
Peoples’ collective experiences like these have led many to ask the question, “Is technology listening to us?” It’s a question that has been blatantly posed to social media leaders like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Adam Mosseri (Instagram). Time and time again, they have adamantly denied the fact that their apps are “listening” to users via smartphone microphones and the like.
The general consensus among industry experts is that they are telling the truth. For one, doing so would be illegal. Secondly, the logistics of actively listening to, recording and storing conversations just don’t make sense when you really think about it.
Tracking, not listening
So if Facebook and Instagram aren’t listening, then how do our conversations and thoughts about products magically turn into ads?
In a way, social platforms are “eavesdropping,” but just not in the way we think.
We see digital ads after talking about something because social media apps like Facebook and Instagram are extensively tracking our actions, both online and off.
A hypothetical scenario
Let’s say you are at a birthday party, and your friend tells you about this new meal service he or she has tried and loved (let’s call it “Yummy Time.”) You have never texted about Yummy Time. You have never Googled Yummy Time. You and your friend simply have a conversation about it out loud.
Hours later, you’re at home scrolling the News Feed and whoa…there’s an ad for Yummy Time.
How they track
No, Facebook didn’t hear your conversation. They are just so good at tracking you in other ways that it can feel that way.
We know that Facebook surveils our online behaviors: i.e., what websites we visit, what terms we search for, what we purchase online, etc. These tracking methods (which get extremely sophisticated beyond what we’re describing here) have a direct influence on the ads that we see.
In the case of the conversation with the friend, we can thank location tracking for that. Even when one is not signed in to the app, Facebook (given permission by the user) can track the location of our mobile phones.
Therefore, Facebook was able to determine that you and the friend were in the same location at the party. If the friend had previously had any online interaction with Yummy Time, then there is your connection. Facebook knows you’re friends on Facebook. It knows you were together. If that friend is bringing up Yummy Time, it’s likely that he or she has had some kind of recent interaction with it—Googling it, visiting the website, etc. Even if the mentioned product was one your friend purchased in a store, Facebook location tracking can be privy to the fact that your friend was at said store.
Let’s take it a step further. Even if your friend (Friend A) had only had a conversation about Yummy Time with another friend (Friend B), then Friend A could have been the one on the receiving end of the ad prior to talking about it with you. That’s enough for Facebook to try the ad with you as well.
In other words…
Beyond just being together, Facebook’s algorithm compares your interests, demographics, places you’ve been, groups you’re a part of, hashtags you follow (the list goes on) to that of your friend. If you and your friend are similar, and the friend has already left a trail of breadcrumbs to that product, then Facebook will serve you up an ad to see if you feel the same.
Fueling the algorithm
So what about those times when you just think about something, and then you see an ad?
It can be difficult to wrap your head around, but it likely is less of a coincidence than you think. Any piece of information Facebook picked up (even just semi-related to the thought), either before or after your thought, could have led to the ad being served.
Every move you make online fuels Facebook’s algorithm. Engaging with a post, liking a person’s photo, or even using your Facebook account to sign in to another online service are all examples of this.
Essentially, a complex algorithm is “listening” to us, just not using microphones.
Can I stop being tracked?
There are permissions you can play around with to limit how Facebook tracks and uses your information. However, if you are using the social platform in any capacity, then it has enough information to go off of to “learn” your potential interests for advertising purposes.
The only true way to stop being subject to social media marketing algorithms? Quit altogether.
Seeing digital ads after talking about something is no coincidence. Though we don’t think anyone is sitting in a warehouse with a pair of headphones listening to our conversations, technology is actively monitoring our behaviors to make suppositions about our future buying inclinations.
McNutt & Partners is a full-service advertising and digital marketing agency. Contact us today for your marketing needs! Call 334-521-1010, or visit our contact page.