This week Facebook announced its acquisition of Atlas – a network designed to track ads across third party websites and all devices. Purchased from Microsoft for a rumoured $100 million, Atlas is Facebook’s latest move in a bid to increase cross-platform activity and shrink Google’s lead in the paid ad sphere.
Atlas means that Facebook can now use the data it amasses from its 1.3 billion users to serve targeted ads on other websites around the web, and track their success. Facebook already uses its vaults of data to serve what are, most of the time, relevant ads on your newsfeed. But what is really interesting about Atlas is that it also tracks ads on mobile devices – allowing it to effectively build up a comprehensive virtual profile of its users, and therefore covering the pitfalls of traditional cookies which fell down on mobile apps. Facebook is also able to gather data about customers who bought an item after seeing a targeted ad, and feed this back to third parties. In this way, Atlas is particularly attractive if you’ve set up marketing campaigns in isolated silos across platforms, by helping to connect the dots and reveal the bigger picture.
In an additional step that is putting tech-savvy users on high alert, Facebook is moving towards tracking where customers have been shopping offline – a stat previously believed to be un-trackable. How does it work? If a consumer gives their email address when purchasing an item instore, Facebook can share whether or not that person was targeted with an ad. Let’s say Reebok shares with Facebook a list of people who recently bought their new range of gym kit. Facebook can then provide the number of people who saw a targeted ad for the same items, and tell Reebok how many targeted users converted, both on and offline.
Advertising giant Omnicom is the first to sign an agency-wide ad serving and measurement partnership with Atlas, and no doubt it won’t be long before others follow in their footsteps, lured in by better tracking and conversion rates. Facebook’s photo sharing app Instagram is also set up with Atlas to track ad impressions.
Facebook arguably has more relevant information about its users than any other platform, even Google, so it’s likely that following roll-out of Atlas, ads will start getting more personal and more prevalent pretty quickly. Facebook insists the latest move is a step towards more “people-based marketing”, helping marketers to reach out to users across devices. But already there are rumblings on the web that the rapid development and intrusive nature of paid ads is turning customers off.
Microsoft originally sold Atlas to Facebook because of a shift in strategy – they believe time is up for ads and that now more than ever, customers want quality and valuable content. They want to share digital experiences with brands and peers alike, rather than having a product forced on them and feeling concerned about their digital privacy. The idea that consumers are becoming frightened by the sharing of data is not new – the usage of email content on services like Gmail to render targeted ads has been hotly debated. Is Atlas a step too far for worried users, and should you be steering clear of potentially intrusive new developments despite obvious marketing benefits?
Consumer frustration with ad-based marketing is more apparent now than ever before following the launch and instant success of new platform Ello. Pitching itself as the “anti-Facebook”, Ello is invite-only and is achieving viral success due to the passion of users worried about the usage of their personal data. Typically, then, Ello does not release user numbers to share, but we do know that they receive around 40,000 requests an hour to sign up. That’s a lot of disgruntled people, frustrated at how platforms exploit their data to make money. You might ask; “An ad-free utopia is all well and good, but how is it funded?”
Ello plans to sustain itself by making certain products and services paid-for, believing customers will pay for features they find genuine value in. The fact that users will pay to protect their privacy suggests a new way of thinking, and a definite turn away from traditional paid online advertising on social media.
On the flip side, Facebook is keen to stress that although Atlas allows it to track data better than ever before and share invaluable information about online purchasing habits with third parties, the identity of users remains anonymous at all times. In other words, the profiling of users in databases is done on a “blind” basis and Facebook never discloses the identity of individuals. Whether this will stay the case in the future when Facebook needs to ensure company expansion, is hard to say, but for now there is nothing new or particularly frightening about Atlas. At least, nothing new or frightening that hasn’t already been existing in the industry for years in the form of Google Adwords and other forms of targeted marketing.
It remains to be seen whether Atlas will help marketers and businesses keep delivering relevant and useful ads to customers while simultaneously improving their own bottom lines, or whether it will simply further increase the chasm between brand and customer.