Why Am I Seeing This Ad?

Arcane Blog Post

Why Am I Seeing This Ad?

Why Am I Seeing This Ad?


It’s Tuesday afternoon. You’re sitting at your desk, taking a much-deserved coffee break. Karen, your co-worker, is filling you in on her weekend with the kids when she mentions their new inflatable hot tub that Steve bought from Home Depot. You don’t really think much of it.

It’s Wednesday morning. You’re lying in bed, contemplating how late you’ll be if you hit snooze one more time. You decide to browse through Facebook and that’s when you see it — an ad for inflatable hot tubs.

We’ve all been there. Off-handed conversations and random text message chains suddenly turn into a myriad of advertisements that have you convinced: my phone is listening to me. But what’s really happening behind the scenes? Are marketers actually tapping into our mobile devices or is the answer more science than science-fiction?

Call Me Data

Rest assured, your gossip sessions at the office are free and clear from unwanted ears (nosy co-workers not included). Facebook confirmed that it doesn’t use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in the newsfeed, but it does use your data to target, personalize, and curate your experience in the platform.

Between the information you willingly provided and your usage habits online, Facebook and Google know a lot more about you than you probably think. It’s no secret that your data is collected on these platforms — a quick peek at their privacy policies make it pretty clear. Everything from your email address to the strength of your phone’s battery is free game.

I promise we’re not stalkers.

We, as marketers, just gain access to that data and use it to our advantage. If we’re advertising for a new cookware line and Facebook has categorized you as a user who’s interested in cooking, odds are you’re getting served our ad. It’s called detailed targeting and, to the untrained eye, it’s creepy. But how does Facebook determine what you’re into? There are a few ways:

  • Pages on Facebook you’ve liked
  • Information from your Facebook and Instagram profile
  • Ads you’ve previously clicked on
  • Places you’ve checked in to using Facebook

The same goes for Google. Your information, online activity, and even time of day can determine what ads you see when you’re browsing the internet. Marketers (like us) then use that data to develop targeted and strategic advertising campaigns.

The Butterfly Effect

Remember that inflatable hot tub ad you saw Wednesday morning? What you thought was an FBI-level security breach was actually just the work of a strategic marketer. Karen and her husband, Steve, recently bought that very product and, odds are, did some research before pulling the trigger. Whether they saw an ad and clicked through to learn more or simply browsed the Home Depot website and added to their cart, their online activity caused a ripple effect that eventually trickled down to you.

Lookalike Audiences are an effective way to reach new people who are likely to be interested in a business because they’re similar to existing customers. That means that because you and Karen work for the same company, live in the same city, and are around the same age, Facebook determined that you would also be interested in inflatable hot tubs.

When it comes to advertising to a cold audience, reaching the perfect customer can be like finding a needle in a haystack. It takes time for Facebook and Google to learn what works, who to engage, and where to capture them. That’s why Lookalike Audiences are so appealing — marketers can expand their reach to new audiences who are likely to have an interest in their product, even if they’re not already familiar with the brand.

It’s Me Again

What about all that “You Left Something Behind” email spam you get after adding $850 worth of clothes to your shopping cart just to close the tab? Yup — strategic marketing. In this case, you’re getting remarketed to, which is a way to connect with people who previously visited a site, engaged with an ad, or interacted with a brand. If targeting is all about getting in front of the right people at the right time with the right message, then the best way to do that is by hand-selecting the highest intent users and re-engaging them in the funnel.

Remarketing is one of the most effective ways to reel potential customers back in. Let’s say that Karen and Steve were served an ad for inflatable hot tubs from Home Depot. They clicked on the ad and looked at the product online but didn’t make a purchase. The next day, their Facebook newsfeed is filled with pictures of inflatable hot tubs and other Home Depot products that, eventually, influence them to go to their local store and convert from window shoppers to happy customers.

When only 2% of online users convert on their first trip to a given site, you need a way to bring back that lost 98%.

The Creep Factor

What does all this really mean? In short — no, we’re not listening to you. We’re just using your data to create strategic, effective, and top-performing marketing campaigns that target the right people at the right time. So, what seemed like a mundane conversation with a coworker was actually the result of a group of people (like us) deciding that Karen needs an inflatable hot tub.

(Oh, and there’s also this thing called recency bias. Sometimes, just like that new Kia Forte you looked at and now see everywhere, recent conversations bring an unexpected level of relevancy to ads that would otherwise be wallpaper.)


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