Big Changes to Facebook Custom Audiences: What You Need to Know

Allen Finn
April 24, 2018

Custom Audiences have long been a platform-defining feature for Facebook ads.

They allow you to hit hyper-targeted subsets of the (still massive) Facebook-using population based on their relationship—no matter how loosely defined—to your business. Paired with the ad format, offer, and copy, Custom Audiences are your business’s best friend.

facebook custom audiences creation interface

Unfortunately, times are a changin’.

Amid a rash of bad press and mounting privacy concerns, Facebook has decided it’s high-time to hold itself—and advertisers—more accountable for how they target prospects. Over the next few months (as of now the timeline extends through October 1), Facebook’s most powerful feature will undergo significant changes that will almost certainly impact your online advertising strategy.

This doesn’t mean you should run for the hills or pull budget away from your successful campaigns. It simply means you’ll need to get more creative with how you re-engage prospects.

Before I dive into what’s changing (and when), a brief overview of why Facebook is altering Custom Audiences is in order.

What’s Changing with Custom Audiences (and Why)?

Since Cambridge Analytica—an, uh, analytics company and definitely not some cabal of nefarious, socio-politically charged tech bros who played a substantial role in the evisceration of DemocracyTM—gained access to information on 50 million-ish Facebook users, Zuck and co. have faced a touch of backlash.

In response to the public’s reaction to being manipulated by political agents, Facebook has decided to put the kibosh on some subsets of Custom Audience creation and add some safeguards to make the tools that remain less exploitable.

The first change—and perhaps the most impactful—is the removal of Partner Categories.

Partner Categories

If you’ve never had the pleasure of leveraging third-party data without paying through the nose for it, don’t start now!

Partner Categories are subsets of Facebook’s detailed targeting that draw from third-party data. 

facebook eliminates partner categories from custom audiences

They allow you to reach prospects based on a ton of really cool bits of information like what kind of car they own or what tax bracket they fall into or where they work. You know, game changing personal information that can save you a ton of time and help scaffold devastatingly effective audiences. This data is sourced from big-name partners like Oracle and Experian; unfortunately for those of us in the advertising community, it’s being killed off in the name of safeguarding users.

While you can still create ad sets using Partner Categories today, the ability to do so will be phased out over the course of the next few months.

EU-Based Audiences

Per Facebook, the ability to create or edit EU-based custom audiences that utilize Partner Categories will end on May 11, and ad delivery will end on May 25. Note that this also includes advertiser-requested Partner Categories (special targeting options that don’t come stock as part of the Partner Categories available on Facebook but can be opted into by asking a third-party data provider real nice like and probably forking over a few shekels).

Everywhere Else

For everyone else in the world, the creation and editing of ad sets based on Partner Categories will be halted on July 1 and ad delivery will cease on October 1.

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If, after the elimination of Partner Categories, you decide to supplement audience creation with first or third-party data (hashed lists you upload to Facebook), you’ll have to jump through a few extra hoops thanks to the…

Custom Audience Permission Tool

Woo!

The current protocol for creating list-based Custom Audiences using external data is pretty straightforward. You upload a list, you check a few boxes, and you jump into Ads Manager to begin using it.

facebook custom audience permission tool

As of (some point in) May, that process will include a new step: authentication.

According to Facebook, the Custom Audiences Permissions Tool “ensures that advertisers represent and warrant that proper consent has been obtained for the information they upload in Business Manager to create Custom Audiences, and enables them to grant appropriate permissions to service providers.”

Gosh that sounds fun.

In reality, it probably should have been there all along.

Basically, the Custom Audiences Permissions Tool will not make your life more difficult if you’re already doing the right thing. You—not Facebook—are responsible for obtaining consent to advertise to someone. Nobody’s sure what form the tool is going to take, but we’ll know in the coming weeks

Wanna see whose lists you’re a part of? The lovely folks who have added a list of contacts to their Audience Manager of which you were a member?

Go to Facebook’s Ad Preferences tab and scroll down to “Advertisers you’ve interacted with.” There, in the first tab—“who have added their contact lists to Facebook”—you can take a look at the businesses (and politicians)  with the ability to advertise to you because you “shared your email address with them or another business they've partnered with.”

Here’s a tiny fraction of mine:

facebook makes big changes to custom audiences

Damn you, Bryan Slaton!

With the Custom Audiences Permissions Tool, if these fine folks want to hit me with a carousel ad on a Wednesday afternoon, they’ll need to show some receipts.

The Silver Lining

While these eliminated featured and spools of red tape might be a kick in the shins to some, the additional regulation could help to foster trust among members of an increasingly skeptical public.

It should also be noted that nothing is happening to Core Audience targeting (basically anything that’s inferred through information shared directly with Facebook and in-app activity) and you can still create lookalikes of your most valuable audiences. You just won’t be able to buy a sketchy list from some guy in a trench coat or target me because I own a Prius and have okay credit.

That ain’t bad, folks.

Allen Finn

Allen Finn writes many things at WordStream, where he reigned as fantasy football champion for some time. He likes marveling at funky beer labels, every beat on Liquid Swords, most cuts of beef, and New Hampshire.