From Clear History to Off-Facebook Activity: What It Means, and How It Impacts Advertisers

The Background

In response to consumer data privacy concerns, Facebook announced a feature in 2018 called “Clear History,” where users could dive into how the platform shares data with third-party apps and websites. In August 2019, Facebook changed the term to “Off-Facebook Activity” and provided further clarification as to exactly how said data is revealed and shared. It first rolled out in Ireland, South Korea and Spain, and became available in the United States this past week.

How It Works?

When a third-party app or website integrates with Facebook, a user will have the option to sync that platform with their Facebook and Instagram accounts. This is promoted as mutually beneficial for the user and the site as the process streamlines account creation and logins, and the third-party is able to take their share of the data for more precise targeting abilities. The tracker shows the previous 180 days’ worth of data, and the user is able to browse through which brands have a piece of users’ social media history.

This begs the question: What does Facebook do with it?

Well, outside of the platform, not much.

Facebook prohibits companies from sharing direct, sensitive information with them, such as health or financial information. Since the data is anonymized upon opening the app, immediate, 1-to-1 identifiable information is not revealed or connected. The information is also not sold.

Rather, Facebook uses this online activity as a way of personalizing both the user and advertiser experience. It will show relevant ads, events, articles and products, and tailor your time spent in News Feed, Story, Instagram and Messenger. Advertisers can see interactions that an audience had with their paid media efforts, such as opening an app, visiting a website, searching for an item or adding an item to a cart. These points of online activity are used to drive a specific desired goal from the advertiser, whether it be returning to that site, purchasing that product in the cart or downloading that app.

That’s an in-depth way of saying the connection makes sure you don’t get served baseball ads when you aren’t a baseball fan AND the organization didn’t waste money serving you a baseball ad.

If a user does choose to “Clear History,” the data will not be completely erased, just unlinked. “Clearing” that connection does not halt the gathering of data. Instead, it removes the association of the user with said activity (from the last 180 days). Simply put, it is Facebook’s cache clearing. Curious about your own account? Try it for yourself here.

Why Now?

This announcement came as a result of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, but thanks to the California Consumer Privacy Act, companies have legal mandates to tell users exactly how their data is used right now. This rollout has added pressure to organizations of all sizes and specialties to be even more transparent and suffer legal ramifications if they aren’t compliant. As the average consumer spends more and more time engaging in all aspects of digital media and, in parallel, becomes more protective of their data, user controls such as Off-Facebook activity are likely to appear in other social networks and organizations such as Google.

What Now?

While the sheer number of advertisers might shock the average consumer when opening the app, it would take a substantial number of users taking action to drive serious impact. Education, clarity and transparency will continue to play a key role in advertisers’ media plans and communications as all parties involved try to best navigate their collective and respective platforms. As an agency who prides itself on transparency, we appreciate the efforts being taken.

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