The End of Facebook Partner Categories: What You Can Do Next

Last updated on by Ted Vrountas in Facebook Advertising

It’s bad news if you’re an advertiser on Facebook. In a recent blog post, the social network announced it would be shutting down Partner Categories:

While it’ll help improve user privacy, it’ll also limit advertisers; to what extent remains to be seen, but going forward, reaching your target audience will be a little more difficult.

What are Facebook Partner Categories?

If you advertise on Facebook, you can target users based on information from three different sources:

Here’s a little more about them from Facebook:

Partner Categories are based on information provided by Facebook Marketing Partners with the Audience Data Provider specialty. These categories allow you to further refine your targeting based on information compiled by these partners, such as offline demographic and behavioral information like homeownership or purchase history. For businesses that don't have access to customer data of their own to create Custom Audiences, Partner Categories may be a good option.

If you were located in the US, Brazil, France, Germany, the UK, Australia, or Japan, you could access data from providers like:

Today, though, those are disappearing. And the reason is rooted in Facebook’s ongoing issues with user privacy.

Facebook’s privacy woes

It’s hard to remember a time when users weren’t concerned about their privacy on Facebook. There have been apps that allow other users to track each other’s location through the social network, rumors that Facebook listens in on conversations via microphone…even using cookies to serve retargeting ads was once considered a creepy practice. Today, though, the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal blows them all out of the water.

A quick summary of the Cambridge Analytica scandal

So you saw Zuckerberg’s interrogation by the Senate, you heard about the Russians buying Facebook ads to influence the presidential election, but how it all relates to the shutdown of Partner Categories is a little murky…

According to a Facebook post from Zuckerberg: In 2013 a researcher from Cambridge University named Aleksandr Kogan created a personality quiz that, as a result of Facebook’s privacy policy at the time, gave him access to the data of tens of millions of users.

Then, in 2014, Facebook put stricter limitations on data acquisition, making people like Kogan unable to access info about users’ friends unless those friends also gave permission. By then, though, Kogan already had a mountain of data, which he eventually shared with firm Cambridge Analytica (a firm which covered the cost of developing his app).

That, Zuckerberg says, was a blatant violation of the social network’s developer guidelines. Kogan says his app made it clear that personal information could be used for commercial use. Regardless, Facebook banned Kogan’s app from the network and demanded Cambridge Analytica delete all the data that it acquired improperly.

But according to reports, that data hasn’t been deleted as of now. Today, it’s been alleged that it was used by Cambridge Analytica, the Trump campaign, and Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election with Facebook ads.

The response from Facebook

There’s been finger-pointing on both sides, but rightfully, Facebook has taken responsibility for mishandling its user’s data. Now, you’re seeing another push toward transparency by the social network.

One casualty of that push, unfortunately for advertisers, is Partner Categories. Eventually, Facebook advertisers will only be able to use their own proprietary data or the social network’s data to target audiences on the platform.

Dipayan Ghosh, fellow at New America and Harvard’s Kennedy School, says Facebook’s decision to cut ties with third parties has to do with the lack of transparency in how consumer data is acquired:

What makes this data so sensitive is that brokers like Experian collect information that is hard for most firms in the digital advertising ecosystem to otherwise find. Brokers have close relationships with all kinds of other businesses, from large department stores to credit card agencies, which sell data about their customers to the brokers or share it. Customers typically don’t know much about this; they often unwittingly sign away their rights to this data in the act of making purchases.

Others say the decision isn’t just a response to the Cambridge Analytica debacle, but also preparation for tightening digital privacy restrictions from the EU. Jamie Williams and Gennie Gebhart of the EFF even believe Facebook could stand to profit from this move:

While it’s nice to see Facebook deciding to implement this EU-mandatory privacy change across the globe, it would be missing some of the larger picture to interpret this as a completely voluntary, privacy-protective measure taken wholly in response to Cambridge Analytica. Beyond the stark fact of legal compliance, this isn’t even a move that is likely to affect Facebook’s bottom line: the company may actually stand to benefit from this, in terms of boosted profits and solidified market dominance.

What’s next for advertisers?

What does it mean now that advertisers can’t get their hands on data collected by third parties? They have a few options:

  1. They can hope users voluntarily give up more of their information to Facebook, which is unlikely to happen given its history of privacy troubles. A recent poll even showed that, compared to other tech giants, Facebook is trusted far less. A mere 41% trust Facebook their personal data, while 66% trust Amazon, 62% trust Google, and 60% trust Microsoft.
  2. They can get the data directly from third parties. Just because Facebook’s no longer partnering with these data firms doesn’t mean you can’t. Although, solutions through this avenue won’t come cheap.
  3. They can collect the data themselves. Relying on lead capture post-click landing pages are the choice of most businesses looking to build their own lists from scratch. To get, you first have to give. This is the foundation of a great lead gen initiative.
  4. They can outsource their advertising to a media buyer. If you don’t have the resources to do it yourself, media buyers and lead gen agencies can build a list for you with their own marketing initiatives.

The solution you choose depends on many factors like company size, resources, and stage of development. If you’re a media buyer or a business looking to gather data yourself, scale your lead gen initiative with the web’s most robust post-click optimization platform.

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