How Facebook Became a Proving Ground for Hyper-Targeted Super Bowl Ad Tactics

Brands like Toyota selectively message each group

Facebook always says it has a Super Bowl-size audience to advertise against every day—1.3 billion users—but this year for the Big Game it's not just about hitting the whole audience, the social network says. It's about targeting segments of that massive population of viewers.

To do that, Facebook is giving brands new ways to reach Super Bowl fans, breaking them into targeted groups and delivering tailor-made ads based on their profiles (anonymously, it says, of course).

It's all part of Facebook's growing strategy to grab ad dollars from brands with aggressive Super Bowl marketing plans, and to take some of the share from rivals like YouTube and Twitter. Last year, tools to aim ads at specific audiences were still evolving, and formats like video were still nascent. This year these are the main parts of Facebook's pitch to advertisers.

Facebook stands out for advertisers because of how well it knows its users, their interests and their lives.

Last year, Coca-Cola bought a Super Bowl ad that aired during the game, and it featured people from different cultures singing the National Anthem in their native languages. When it aired live for the whole Super Bowl audience, it caused a backlash from some people who thought America's song should be sung in English.

On Facebook, Coca-Cola shared bits of that video to different audiences, only the parts with which individuals of different backgrounds would identify. This was a unique strategy that employed targeting and video, delivering separate creative that catered to multiple Facebook segments, according to an ad executive who was familiar with Coke's marketing strategy.

This year, the targeting tools for marketers are expanding with Super Bowl-specific segments, Facebook announced today. "The Big Game targeting segment is Facebook's first segment that utilizes real-time conversations (updating frequently throughout the game) related to the Super Bowl," a Facebook rep said in a release today. "The segment includes not just football fans who like the Seahawks or the Patriots but also people engaging (e.g., likes, comments, shares) around party planning, sharing recipes, buying a new flat-screen TV, halftime show commentary, chatter about your favorite ads, and more, to identify new targets for the segment."

Toyota, Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch and Intuit TurboTax are among Facebook's brand partners for the game this year. Much like Coca-Cola did last year, Toyota will target different videos to different Facebook users for maximum impact, according to one source familiar with the carmaker's plans. The brand could not immediately be reached for comment.

Anheuser-Busch said it will use all of Facebook's technological and data offerings to best serve the ads. "We leverage all the tools Facebook provides to try them out, see how we're performing and optimize accordingly," said Lucas Herscovici, vp of consumer connections at Anheuser-Busch.

The idea is for brands like Budweiser to serve light beer ads to one group and regular beer to another. Brands also will shape their messages based on the situation in the game, and talk with fans of the winning teams differently than fans of the losing team, said one top advertising executive, speaking on condition of anonymity. It's a level of sophistication that is still new to brands and one still being tested, but they view the Big Game as the perfect proving ground, this source said.

Budweiser is shaping creative to meet each platform. It's showing off a marketing strategy that progresses from one social network to the next, from one TV spot to the next, giving a little something new for users and viewers each time.

"Our main brands Bud and Bud Light, we're activating them in a 360-degree campaign where the TV ad is just one different element in the storytelling," Herscovici said. "So digital obviously plays a huge role in telling the other parts of the story."

Facebook said it reached 170 million people on game day last year. This year, posts will take into account how users interact with the game—are they super fans, watching for the ads, or in it for the parties? 

"The best stories from advertisers are ones that are told in the same way people create and consume content," a Facebook rep said, referring to its ad format that lets brands share the same style of posts already familiar to users. "Facebook has the tools in place to help marketers improve campaigns and create content that is relevant and rewarding for people."