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Tunnl | Products | Audiences

Two Big Reasons Your Facebook Ad Custom Audiences Fail

October 18th, 2021 | 10 min. read

Amanda Peterson Beadle

Amanda joined Tunnl in April 2022 and currently serves as the Senior Director of Customer Success.

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It doesn’t matter how good your creative looks - if you are talking to the wrong audience, your ads will fail.

This has become a nightmare for marketers everywhere, but especially those targeting individuals on Facebook.

Facebook’s ad revenue topped over $84 billion in 2020 (yes, as in billion with a “B”) - more than 4,400% increase since Facebook’s ad revenue first exceeded $1 billion in 2010.

While this is great news for Facebook, it creates a challenge for Marketers. The market is so saturated, it is more difficult than ever to reach your target audience.

Facebook’s custom targeting tool is a great solution for people trying to sell items.

However, it was not built for knowing what issues people care about or what motivates people to take a specific action - creating a challenge for marketers/advertisers in the purpose-driven marketing space.

At Tunnl, we help clients tackle this challenge every day by using Tunnl’s custom or pre-built audiences.

Facebook does have a custom audiences tool, however, many marketers are still not seeing results from their Facebook Ads.

This article will uncover the two reasons why.


Reason #1: You do not actually know who your audience is on Facebook.

Now, before you dismiss this reason, hear me out. Some of you may disagree with me and say, “I know exactly who my audience is. For example, my audience is female, aged 18-35.” While that may be true, that is your audience profile - not your actual audience.

If you know your audience, you would be able to know exactly who (example: Sam Mims) is receiving your targeted ads. With Facebook-generated custom audiences, you get an audience profile, but you have no idea of who exactly you are targeting.

This causes all sorts of problems for marketers, but the biggest problem is wasted time and money.

A Real-Life Example: COVID-19 Vaccine Persuadables

It is no secret that since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States, there has been a push to get Americans vaccinated. However, those who have not gotten vaccinated but could be persuaded to (with the right messaging) are a notoriously hard-to-reach group.

This group does not fit neatly into any specific demographic pattern - the audience is made up of individuals from a variety of demographic groups.

This makes Facebook’s Custom Targeting tool an unideal solution because there are too many demographics to target instead of a singular one.

But what about Facebook’s Interest Targeting?

If you are familiar with targeting ads on Facebook, you’re most likely familiar with targeting ads by individuals’ interests. Again, this is a great solution for some advertisers, but it does have faults.

How does Facebook target ads based on people’s interests? Facebook aggregates data from pages you like, posts you interact with, groups you’re a part of, etc to allow advertisers to target ads based on the things you care about. This isn’t a perfect science, but it can be effective in certain areas.

For example, it works well for golf manufacturers who want to sell clubs to someone who golfs frequently. Facebook knows that a person belongs to several golf-focused Facebook groups, interacts frequently with golf content, and likes golf-related pages. That helps them get ads selling golf clubs in front of the right people.

Where this has obvious pitfalls is when ads go beyond selling hobby products and into covering issues.

The biggest drawback of leveraging Facebook interest data to target issue ads is that Facebook (and all digital tools) often fail to accurately capture the sentiment.

This also gets at Reason #1; even if you target by interest, you still do not know exactly who you are talking to.


Reason #2: You are limited to people who have previously interacted with you.

To some people, this may not seem like a bad thing - truthfully, to some people it’s not. However, if you are a brand or company wanting to expand its horizons beyond the people you already interact with, Facebook’s custom audience tool can be a hindrance instead of an asset.

Let me explain.

There are real data limitations with Facebook’s Ad Manager Tool

When you enter Facebook’s Ad Manager tool and click custom audiences, you see the screen below.

This gives you the option to get your data from two types of sources:

  • Your Sources
  • Facebook Sources

Explanation of the Custom Audience Data Sources - Your Sources

If you select “Your Sources” you are getting data from:

  • Your Website - Traffic from your website
    • Must have Facebook Pixel encoded into your website so Facebook can retrieve data from your website
  • Customer List - Individuals from your own customer lists
    • For example, these could be people whose information you have already obtained through a sign-up of some sort
    • App Activity - Users of your apps
  • Again, like the Facebook Pixel for websites, you must have Facebook SDK encoded for Apps
    • Offline Activity - Data you have collected off-line
  •  The old-fashioned way, like if someone signed a petition or by mail

Explanation of the Custom Audience Data Sources - Facebook Sources

If you select “Facebook Sources” you are getting data from:

  • Video - People who watch your Facebook videos
  • Instagram Account - Individuals who have interacted with your Instagram account
  • Lead Form - Facebook users who have completed (or started) one of your lead ads
  • Events - People who have shown interest in or attended one of the events you made a Facebook Event for
  • Instant Experience - People who have opened one of your experiences, either on Facebook or Instagram
  • Facebook Page - Individuals who have followed or visited your Facebook page
  • Shopping - People who have clicked on any of your shopping experiences either on Facebook or Instagram
  • On-Facebook Listings - Individuals who interacted with your On-Facebook listings

Now, do you see that you can create a “custom audience” but, you are limited to people that you have already interacted with.

Facebook has made drastic improvements over the years to its Custom Audiences tool. There is no denying that. These improvements have made it a great option for those who want to keep in contact with those individuals that already interact with them.

However, it is not enough on its own for those in the purpose-driven marketing space.

Here is why.


Why Facebook’s Custom Audiences are a Bad Choice for Purpose-Driven Marketing Campaigns

Facebook’s Custom Audience tool is a great tool for those who just want to reach the people they’ve already interacted with.

But, it has made life difficult for many brands and consumers in the corporate, public affairs, and issue advocacy space.

Those in the purpose-driven marketing space are focused on what people think about a certain issue.

The inherent problem with Facebook’s Custom Audiences tool is that you cannot precisely target people based on how they feel about a certain issue (but you can target based on demographics, more on that below).

This limitation is a bigger problem for those in the purpose-driven marketing space. Let’s think back to the two reasons your Facebook Custom Audiences fail:

  1. Reason #1: You do not actually know who your audience is on Facebook.
  2. Reason #2: You are limited to people who have previously interacted with you.

Reason #1: How the unknown audience hurts your purpose-driven marketing efforts

Not everyone who targets ads on Facebook needs to know exactly who they are targeting. But, if you are in the purpose-driven marketing space, you likely have a vested interest in knowing who you are talking to.

If you know exactly who you are talking to, and not just a generic group of people (females 18-35), you can end up saving money by talking to the people that matter the most to your cause instead of casting a wide net in hopes that you’ll get some of the right people.

I’ll give you another example like the COVID-19 vaccine audience above.

Example: Audience Targeting Solutions for Energy Groups

Let’s say you are an energy group that is advocating for the passage of a specific piece of legislation. You need to build a coalition of public support to win over the hearts and minds of Legislators.

The first step you might take is to look at the audience insights of your Facebook page as it stands now. One option you have is to then target your ad to a group with mirroring demographics.

Note: The only demographic information you get is:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Country
  • City
  • Language

However, this is not a great idea, unless you have unlimited financial resources, because there is no way of knowing who you are actually talking to and if they actually care about your energy policies. 

Look at it this way, if your Facebook insights tell you that your page audience is mostly female, 25-44 from the United States, it may seem helpful but in reality, it is not.

First of all, that demographic is extremely large which is going to make it harder to find people within that group that actually care about your energy policies. 

Secondly, that demographic is so large so it is likely to care about a wide range of issues, meaning you are likely spending money on people who your message will never resonate with if you only target based on an anonymous, demographic group. Not to mention, you are likely leaving out a lot of people who also care about your issue.

Reason #2: How Facebook’s Custom Audience tool’s limitations hurt your purpose-driven marketing efforts

Like I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest limitations of Facebook’s Custom Audience tool is that you are given two options:

  1. Data from people who have interacted with you outside of Facebook
  2. Data from people who have interacted with you inside of Facebook (or Instagram)

If you need to build a coalition or group, this is a severe challenge you face. Let’s take it back to the energy group example.

Example: Audience Targeting Solutions for Energy Groups

So, you need to build a coalition of public support to win over the hearts and minds of Legislators to convince them to pass your legislation.

Sure, you could rely solely on Facebook’s Custom Audience solution. It allows you to communicate with some of those individuals who already interact with your website and social media pages.

However, that is not a great strategy for coalition building and bringing more activists into the fold. To do this, you need to expand your “base” - or people who already support you - to include those people who share the same ideals and values as your energy group.

Currently, you cannot target a group based on issue ideology through Facebook’s Custom Audience tool alone.

To effectively communicate to this growing audience, you need additional solutions.

Now You Know Why Your Facebook Custom Ad Audiences Fail… Here’s How You Fix Them

Nothing is worse than having amazing ad creative that performs poorly.

Now you know, it may not actually be the creative’s fault at all. It is probably because there are two big faults with Facebook’s Custom Audience tool:

  1. You do not actually know who your audience is on Facebook.
  2. You are limited to people who have previously interacted with you.

So, the next natural question is: How Can I Fix These Problems?

Here are two solutions for you to explore:

Solution #1: Facebook Lookalike Audiences

Now, I know what you are thinking, “Sam, didn’t you just spend an entire article telling me why Facebook’s tool is bad?”

Well, yes and no. It can be a great solution for some, and a bad solution for others.

One of the “add-ons” that can help make your Facebook Custom Audiences better is their Facebook Lookalike Audiences.

A Facebook Lookalike Audience is a way your ads can reach new people who are likely to be interested in your business because they share similar characteristics to your existing audience.

A lookalike audience uses an existing Custom Audience you select for its source audience. According to Facebook, when you use a Facebook Lookalike Audience, your ad is delivered to that audience of people who are similar to (or "look like") your existing customers.

However, this solution does have limitations such as:

  • You are still having to use Facebook’s Custom Audience tool (and their two big problems we discussed above)
  • Targeting options are limited to location, age, and gender for audiences
  • You have no way of knowing how they feel about your cause, brand, or belief

Solution #2: Importing Your Own, Targeted Audiences

If you are a brand or organization that is involved in purpose-driven marketing, you may need to utilize your own targeted audience.

At Tunnl, we help people do this every day. In fact, our clients spend millions of dollars on Facebook ads every month using our audiences.

For people looking to target a specific group of people, we offer two types of solutions:

Tunnl Pre-built Audiences

New call-to-actionPre-built, or Standard, audiences are a great solution for those wanting to target people based on a shared ideology or value. We have built hundreds of Pre-built Tunnl Audiences that people can activate at any time, 24/7/365.

You can use them without ever talking to us. They are free to use (we make a CPM) in any platform where you can target audiences (not just Facebook).

Tunnl Custom Audiences

Tunnl Custom Audiences are a great solution for clients with a larger budget, and a niche issue they are advocating for. Discover the pros and cons of Tunnl’s Custom Audiences.Demo Custom Audiences



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