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The Convincing Reason Retargeting and ROAS Is Dead as We Know It on Facebook

It used to be so easy. Those of us in the world of online advertising use to joke - want to get a client quick wins the second you start working with them? Get up some retargeting campaigns!

Ah, those were the days. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it - things have changed and data just simply isn't as accessible as it used to be. And it is demolishing advertisers' ability to retarget website visitors (the way we used to) and accurately report the numbers that matter to our clients.

This clamping down of data started getting international with Mark Zuckerberg's (in)famous Capital Hill appearance after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Since then, the idea of data privacy (and the public realization of just HOW much data is being stored about you) has been forefront in the minds of big tech (looking at you, Apple) and they have begun to build deeper privacy into their ecosystems. Forcing us to think differently about the way we advertise and track that work.

Take a Safari With Me

Do you have an iPhone? Great, you and 39% of the rest of the smartphone market have an incredible device. You also have a device which is now doggedly pursuing privacy of your data.

Safari is the most popular internet browser on the Internet right now, according to Statista, with a 55% market share.

This isn't new, it's been going on for a long time. But security has slowly increased, sneaking up on advertisers here in 2020, and giving everyone more and more privacy.

In 2017 Apple rolled out a significant update within its ecosystems introducing what they call the "ITP," Safari Intelligent Tracking Prevention.

This update made it much harder to track people buying things using their Safari web browser across apps and the web. In fact, it infuriated advertisers, who very publicly petitioned the move by Apple.

But this protection has continued to increase over time.

In March 2020 Apple made a large update to ITP by blocking all 3rd party cookies by default. 3rd party cookies are the lifeblood of advertiser retargeting, or showing someone an ad based on their website viewing history (if you've ever visited a website, then gone to Instagram and seen an ad pop up with them in it, you have experienced this).

Not So Sweet for Everyone

Not all cookies are created equal, and some are sweeter for advertisers than others.

A first party cookie is a little piece of tracking code that goes onto a website, with data being collected by that site. For example, this is how you track people that are visiting your website directly, with a code you created and implemented on the site.

A third party cookie, however, is not created by you and put on your site. It's created by a third party and implemented onto a website. The data is of course, then hosted on a third party server. For example, a Facebook pixel. This is the little line of code that goes onto your website so you can track which Facebook users are coming to your site and what their behavior is. It then sends that information back to Facebook's servers so advertisers can utilize it in ad targeting.

Make sense?

So, first party cookies - people are generally OK with, they are used largely for internal analytics.

Third party cookies, however, are becoming increasingly controversial and increasingly blocked by major tech companies like Apple.

Where Are We Now?

Things with 3rd party cookies are about to get even crazier.

So Safari, the most popular web browser in the United States, is already turning off third party cookie tracking by default. And it has a specific program, ITP, in place to make sure user privacy is protected.

Over the summer and into the fall with the release of the new Mac OS (Big Sur) and iOS (iPhone) operating systems, it's being taken a step further.

Not only are third party cookies off by default, but now when you open apps on your phone that could be using third party tracking data, Apple is going to shoot up a pop up that asks you if you allow this data to be tracked:

While advertisers hope most people will allow this, given that it could show them more relevant ads in their social feeds, the reality is most people are likely to opt out.

As ReCode reports Apple decided to push back this requirement to early 2021 so app developers can catch up.

So, What Do I Do?

Good question. Retargeting was once the most profitable audience you could advertise to, so what happens when retargeting goes away? And how do you track performance?

Facebook and Instagram advertising isn't going anywhere, but the sales funnel needs to be rebuilt to make sure you're squeezing out the most profit, and finding other effective ways to retarget.

Since Facebook uses a mobile browser inside its app, chances are if someone buys directly from a Facebook or Instagram ad in that moment - it will be tracked. But if they go to their web browser to look you up later instead, they likely will fall into an attribution void (the sale will happen, but we won't know for sure what caused it to happen)

But let's remember a few key points:

  1. We have all become addicted to data in 2020 and relying on social media advertising for guaranteed results that we can express in consistent ROAS (return on ad spend), CPA (cost per acquisition) and other metrics. That consistent, predictable growth was always something of a mirage but now it's a full on fantasy. But that's ok! TV advertisers have poured billions into ads for years because it works - and they couldn't dream of tracking the exact sales numbers that come from their efforts. At the end of the day, it's about how much investment you are making in advertising, and how much revenue you are bringing in, and if it is growing. Track simpler and with an eagle eye, rather than a micro manager's ledger.

  2. Retargeting is still alive and well! You just need to retarget different/additional audiences than people who visit your website. This is why at my agency, Guide Social, we have been so doggedly committed to building high converting video funnels for e-commerce. Video is a highly retargetable asset. You can always retarget what people do on Facebook and Instagram, just not necessarily what they do off it.

So what should you do?

Use more video in your funnels so you have big, hungry audiences to retarget that have consumed your content.

And change the way you think about your ROI when it comes to advertising. As your Facebook and Instagram advertising (especially video because it leads to more brand awareness) is almost always making you more money than Facebook is able to track with all the constraints put on third party cookies in 2020.

If you'd like to learn more about working with Guide Social to move your e-commerce efforts forward in 2020 and beyond, visit us at and reach out.

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