Why Facebook’s limits on teen targeting are all part of its algorithmic ad playbook

The header image features a person watching a Facebook logo float across a smartphone screen.

When Facebook announced late last month it would soon end targeting to people under 18 years old based on their interests or activity on other apps and sites, the company said the move was in response to demands from youth advocates and represented “a more precautionary approach” to advertising aimed at young people. But agency execs who eat, sleep and breathe Facebook advertising say the company’s automated ad targeting algorithm could continue doing a good — possibly even better — job of targeting ads to teens whom the platform deems likely to respond to their ads.

Indeed, the agency execs say Facebook has encouraged advertisers to ditch the old way of setting targeting parameters for Facebook and Instagram and instead pushed a different approach: leaving it up to Facebook’s seemingly omniscient targeting algorithm to take the reins.

“Advertisers can probably still be profitable in reaching people under 18 simply by setting a broad age and gender audience target and feeding Facebook the conversion data that enables its algorithm to decide who to reach with ads,” said Ty Martin, founder of Audience Kitchen, which helps advertisers uncover targetable audiences on Facebook and Instagram. “Most advertisers are treating Facebook and Instagram pretty much the same and letting Facebook do the work of allocating the budget between those, serving the creative format that performs the best,” he said.

Facebook said it will not allow targeting to specific lists of people or so-called lookalike audience targeting to reach people under 18, though it will continue allowing advertisers to set up campaign targets to reach people under 18 according to gender, location and age parameters.

Martin and others familiar with Facebook ad targeting say the new targeting limit on Facebook, Instagram and in Facebook Messenger — set to come into effect “in a few weeks,” according to Facebook — probably won’t affect how advertisers currently use the platform. Not only do advertisers hoping to reach young audiences tend to avoid Facebook proper, with an audience that skews older, but some spending to reach those younger people has also shifted to platforms such as Snap and TikTok, said Shamsul Chowdhury, vp of paid social at digital agency Jellyfish.

Agency execs said they expect little impact from the targeting limit on ad spending across Facebook’s properties. Chowdhury said any effect on the amount of money advertisers spend on Facebook is likely to be “nominal.” The agency’s brand clients that typically seek to attract younger audiences tend not to target people under 18 on the platform anyway, he said. “These audiences don’t perform well,” because they tend not to have much discretionary income, Chowdhury added. He also said when advertisers do want to reach those younger people they have shifted some budget to platforms such as Snap and TikTok.

Playing ball on an algorithmic court

The new targeting restriction actually aligns with Facebook’s longer-term strategic playbook, said Joe Kerschbaum, vp of growth labs at 3Q Digital. The ability for Facebook to deliver its bread-and-butter retargeted ads based on tracking whether someone viewed a product on a retailer’s site is slipping away with the rise of tracker blockades erected by Apple and the impending demise of third-party cookies in Google‘s Chrome browser. That means the type of interest-level targeting to young people the company will now prohibit is slowly losing effectiveness when it comes to reaching all audiences, he said.

“This is giving advertisers a taste of the privacy measures coming up as people adopt iOS 14,” said Kerschbaum.

Perhaps more significant, the change also reflects Facebook’s own internal strategy shift away from advertiser self-guided targeting to campaigns that leave the decision-making up to the company’s almighty ad algorithm. Indeed, marketers say Facebook has encouraged advertisers to shift away from setting up campaigns using targeting parameters and instead coaxed them to let the company’s sophisticated algorithmic process for optimizing ad targeting do the work.

“Facebook has made that suggestion to us and we’re testing it,” said Kerschbaum regarding use of the company’s automated campaign targeting.

In line with company communications, Facebook account reps over the past three or four years have told ad buyers like Chowdhury that they should use broad targeting parameters in Facebook campaigns and leave the decisions up to its algorithmic process, he said.

For instance, Chowdhury said if an advertiser wants to reach people under 18, they might set up a campaign to optimize toward revenue and leave it to Facebook to determine what the younger group is likely to do based on what people in 18-24 or 25-34 age ranges who convert do. “If you want to optimize toward a revenue target, [Facebook is] going to do the damn best to find that audience,” said Chowdhury.

While the Apple tracking changes create gaps in what advertisers know about how campaigns perform, marketers including Martin and Chowdhury said Facebook still has access to some conversion data supplied by advertisers, in part through its conversion API, that shows whether people who saw Facebook ads took an action as a result. That data is a component of what’s feeding Facebook’s algorithmic system, training it to help find people likely to take a desired action, they said.

“I’ve seen advertisers over the last year put a lot of effort into giving Facebook [their] conversion data,” said Martin.

Age detection ain’t easy

Another factor that may have contributed to Facebook’s new targeting restriction: the company itself has admitted that detecting and verifying the age of people on Facebook and Instagram is an extraordinary challenge. “While age screens are common in our industry, young people can — and often do — get around them by misrepresenting their age,” wrote Facebook’s vp of youth products Pavni Diwanji in a company blog post about using AI to remove underaged accounts and help verify people’s ages; the post was published the same day as a company post about the targeting changes. Diwanji, a former YouTube Kids exec at Google, is now tasked with navigating the treacherous seas of children’s digital services as she oversees the development of a controversial Instagram for Kids, which the firm already has said will not enable any advertising.

Facebook recognizes that the regulatory waters are getting choppier when it comes to rules preventing data use and targeting of kids and teens online, particularly in the U.K. and Europe, said a kids digital media investor and marketing consultant who did not have permission by his employer to be named in this story. “Facebook’s assessment [of what] the landscape for advertisers is going to look like legally in the next five years is you’re going to have this complete exclusion zone for kids and teens,” said the exec.

Ultimately, Facebook’s targeting restriction helps the firm soften its damaged reputation as a data exploiter in the eyes of consumer advocates and legislators who worry about kids’ privacy and the effects of manipulative ad messages on impressionable minds, said Kerschbaum. “Wherever they can get quick wins and meet consumer concerns that don’t necessarily have a huge bottom-line impact, they’re probably going to do it.” 


More in Marketing

In the marketing world, anime is following in the footsteps of gaming

As marketers look to take advantage of anime’s entry into the zeitgeist, they might be wise to observe the parallels between the evolution of anime as a marketing channel and the ways brands have learned to better leverage gaming in recent years. 

With the introduction of video ads and e-commerce, Roblox looks to attain platform status

Roblox is expanding into more areas than just ads in 2024. Much like platforms such as Amazon and Facebook have transcended their origins to evolve from their origins as online marketplaces and social media channels, Roblox is in the midst of a transformation into a platform for all elements of users’ virtual lives.