Facebook is finally sharing its deep knowledge of 1.3 billion users to power advertising across the Web in a way that marketers say is unprecedented, potentially enhancing their ability to target messages like never before. Facebook's improved Atlas ad server will be fully unwrapped this week, and one digital advertising CEO called it "marketing nirvana."
It's the biggest step in unleashing Facebook's reservoir of data to deliver ads outside its walls and across apps, the mobile Web and desktop, rivalling the infrastructure of the likes of Google, which has dominated digital advertising for a decade.
Facebook calls it "people-based" marketing—where you know a ton about an audience without learning their actual names/identities. It's a fairly simple concept but an elusive one for even the most advanced advertising technology players. The potential problems with the mobile revolution has been well documented with challenges like the shortcomings of cookies—the basis of desktop targeting that doesn't work tracking people's digital habits on phones.
Facebook says it has solved the problem with Atlas, an ad server it bought last year. It will bring the targeting capabilities marketers use in their campaigns on Facebook and apply them to advertising across devices and publishers.
"When you have that much known information, tied to analytics and an ad server, you can start doing messaging in a way no one's ever done before,” said Jonathan Nelson, CEO of Omnicom Digital. "That's marketing nirvana."
Omnicom is the first media buying agency to try Atlas, with brands like Pepsi and Intel among the early testers. Omnicom's data platform is able to plug into Atlas to take advantage of Facebook's first-party data to inform ad campaigns across digital platforms for the first time.
The opening up of such user information for ad purposes is sure to raise renewed privacy concerns, but Facebook says it is not sharing any personal data about users' identity.
"We're not sharing information with marketers about who you are," a Facebook representative said.
For now, marketers will be able to target basic demographic data like age and gender, but eventually Atlas could include more interest-based data of the kind already used to target ads on Facebook. Also, this people-based marketing will be used to measure how effective campaigns were at hitting the intended target.
Facebook's massive reach is what makes the analysis possible, because no other Internet company has data on 1.3 billion consumers and can say for certain if that user received an ad.
Facebook also says that Atlas will be measure offline sales, tracking campaigns from ad serving to purchase.
Instagram is among the platforms plugging into the new ad server, Facebook said.
"Instagram—as a publisher—is now enabled with Atlas to both measure and verify ad impressions," Facebook said in its announcement today. "And for Atlas advertisers who are already running campaigns through Instagram, Instagram ads will be included in Atlas reporting."
Atlas is just Facebook's latest ad platform that extends the social network's reach beyond its own properties to be able to hit Internet users when they are spending time outside its walls. Earlier this year, it launched the Facebook Audience Network to deliver ads to partner apps.
It also bought LiveRail, an ad platform that opens new digital video inventory, a key focus for Facebook. Earlier this year, Facebook also started to use data on people's Web habits to understand their interests and influence what ads they receive on the social network.
Facebook, which timed today's announcement to coincide with Advertising Week, could continue to develop these ad products with its unusual user data to enable interest-based targeting across the Internet and in a variety of formats. It's this prospect that has excited marketers and investors and concerned rivals like Google and Twitter.
"Facebook is different from every other media company because they actually know who you are," Omnicom's Nelson said. "We will see this whole business go to another level because of this kind of knowledge that's about actual people. It's about real behavior."