Understanding WTF Signal Did With Facebook’s Ad Targeting

Signal made a blog post today highlighting a recent ad campaign of theirs that got taken down by Facebook. The series of ads were theoretically meant to target users at the most granular level to expose the sheer amount of data Facebook collects. I love this concept, I think it’s a great execution on Signal’s side, I think it gets across their message really well, I wish I had done it, and I think nitpicking the particulars of whether or not this campaign was possible misses the point… but I love to think about commercial ad platforms and online privacy, and understanding the “how” around this campaign will help a lot of people understand how Facebook’s ad ecosystem works.

Let’s take a look at their cover photo for this blog post:

You got this ad because you're a newlywed pilates instructor and you're cartoon crazy. This ad used your location to see you're in La Jolla. You're into parenting blogs and thinking about LGBTQ adoption.
From Signal’s post, linked above.

Let’s pick this apart. First, the highlighted text implies a certain fill-in-the-blank nature of this ad. The viewer is arguably told by the format that there was a template that Signal – the advertiser – provided Facebook, and that Facebook – the platform – filled in with data. The changing of the content of an ad on the fly for an individual user is broadly referred to as dynamic creative, and is indeed a feature in Facebook’s ad offerings, but it does not exist to this extent. Believe me, advertisers wish it did, but the most dynamic text editing you can do is swapping around different lines of copy you provide FB.

From FB Ad UI

Now, there is theoretically a way for this to have played out without Signal making a plethora of obscenely targeted campaign audiences. When you give Facebook a large audience and a bunch of different creative assets (images to show in your ad), FB’s pitch to advertisers is that it will continuously test the creatives against different users and gauge their reactions until it gets closer and closer to figuring out just which unique user will want just which unique creative. So, over time, if you dumped all of these Signal ads into an undifferentiated audience and people only ever interacted with their unique mad-lib, Facebook might eventually start getting granular enough with its algorithmic understanding to simulate this excessively-specific effect without dynamic creative. Of course, this is not what Signal is claiming, and would in reality is probably impossible.

So what did they probably do? It’s impossible to tell what their strategy was. For all the flair of the blog post, it’s only 5 paragraphs, none of them with any specifics, but here’s what I think they did:

If they truly had the breadth of creative they gesture towards (they never say a number, just that they created a “a multi-variant targeted ad”) with permutations for tons of different pieces of user data, I think they took a page from the world of those overly-targeted t-shirts. They set up a program to spit out a ton of unique images paired with their respective audience definitions, then they uploaded those audiences to an ad campaign in Facebook as targeted ad sets, and set each ad set to deliver a singular ad with their own unique image. Everything aside from the .png creation can be done with a list of targetable traits and a few excel formulas (you’d be shocked at how much of the advertisements you see were originally incomprehensible .csv files). This is not a small task, but not a substantially large one, and definitely possible within the realm of what FB allows you to do.

It’s also entirely possible that they intended this more as a PR stunt, had a feeling they would get struck by FB, and did most of this manually. In that case, all of the targeting is simple enough to do in the UI. Throw a few first-year digital strategists and you could spin up a hundred or so of these in a few days. In that case, the actual follow-through of the ads wouldn’t particularly matter (especially because FB is pretty bad with overly-targeted audiences), but the result – picking a fight with the platform that owns the messaging platform you’re trying to compete with – is there regardless. See below for an example of what the targeting for the example image we used above would look like in Facebook’s UI.

Either way, like I said, I think it’s a dope campaign. It is slightly misleading, but all good art probably is. I respect Signal, I love their app, and it’s a great concept. Just wanted to give people some insight into what actually probably happened here. I hope you learned something about Facebook’s advertising backend. Feel free to hit me up with questions: @wttdotm on Twitter 🙂

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