Picture this: you’re hungry, it’s a Friday afternoon, and you’re scrolling through Facebook. Suddenly you see a Facebook banner ad for a coupon on your next online delivery order at your favorite pizza place. This can either feel like fate or feel a bit intrusive. On the one hand, the personalised ad is relevant and useful for satisfying your pizza craving. On the other hand, it may feel creepy that it seems like Facebook “read your mind”. Your off-Facebook activity can help explain why you see the ads that you see when you’re on Facebook.
What is off-Facebook activity?
According to Facebook, “Off-Facebook activity includes information that businesses and organizations share with us [Facebook] about your interactions with them”. So, when you visit a website or an app, that website or app may be sharing information about your activities back to Facebook. These “activities” refer to things you did on their webpage or app, and are called “interactions”.
The interactions that may be reported to Facebook include:
- When you open an app
- App logins via Facebook
- Item searches
- Adding items to shopping carts
- Content views
- The act of making a purchase or a donation
So, what does Facebook do with your off-Facebook activity information?
Remember that hypothetical pizza ad from earlier? Well, the chances are that you recently had some sort of interaction on that pizza company’s website. Maybe you bought a pizza last week. Using a Facebook business tool, that pizza company sent this info to Facebook, and now you have a personalized and relevant ad.
As stated in the Facebook article “What is off-Facebook Activity”, Facebook may use your off-Facebook activity combined with your Facebook activity to:
“Show more relevant ads…; Suggest groups, events or Marketplace items…; Help you discover new businesses and brands; Help businesses and organizations understand how their website, app or ads are performing and whether they’re reaching the right people…”.
So, if you see an ad that seems to be really relevant remember: this may be because the company who created the ad is using a Facebook business tool. They are using this tool in order to make sure the ad is in front of the right person at the right time.
In this case, that person was you.
Downloading your off-Facebook activity
In order to learn what companies were sharing my information with Facebook, I downloaded my off-Facebook activity. How did I download my off-Facebook Activity?
First, I opened up Facebook on my computer. Next, I clicked on the downward pointing arrow on the top right of the screen to reveal the dropdown options. After that, I clicked on “Settings & Privacy”, and then on “Settings”. Under “Settings”, I clicked on “Your Facebook Information”. On this page, you will see different options for accessing, viewing or downloading your information. I went to the heading that said “Download Your Information” and I clicked on “view”. On this page, I had the option to download my personal Facebook information regarding all sorts of activities – from recent posts, to pokes I received years ago. I chose to download information related to “Ads and Businesses”. I found information on my off-Facebook activity (helpfully named “your_off-facebook_activity.html”) within the folder that I downloaded.
What did I see?
The first thing I saw when I clicked on the Html link included in the download folder was a list of 790 companies who have, presumably, shared some of my activities with Facebook going back to December 2019. The company with the most recent off-Facebook activity was at the top of the list.
When I clicked on the company on the top of this list, I saw a long list of activity received from that app, including the type of activity and the time at which the activity took place. For myself, LinkedIn was the app that had most recently sent Facebook some of my activity. This included activity on the LinkedIn app such as “ACTIVATE_APP” and “ADD_TO_CART”. It looks like Facebook is sent activity information every time I open the LinkedIn app (I am assuming that “activate” refers to the act of me opening the app). Clearly, I open up this app a lot on my phone. With a bit of further analysis of my data, I found that LinkedIn has sent 2,522 interactions to Facebook regarding my activity on LinkedIn. I guess I know why I’ve seen so many ads for LinkedIn Business Solutions recently when I’ve been on my Facebook.
What can you learn by viewing/downloading your off-Facebook activity?
To sum up my explorations, I’ve found that there are a number of things that you can learn from viewing/downloading your off-Facebook activity:
- You can learn which companies are sending information about your activities to Facebook.
- You can learn which types of interactions companies are tracking and sending to Facebook.
- You can see how many interactions have been sent to Facebook from a specific company.
- You can gain a better understanding of why you’ve seen specific ads recently.
What can you do about this data sharing?
Unfortunately you can’t really stop companies from sharing information with Facebook, the activity will still be sent to Facebook. However, you can choose to have the information disconnected from your account. You can find this option on your off-Facebook activity page. Facebook warns that this may log you out of apps and websites, and prevents you from logging into apps/websites in the future through Facebook. If you disconnect the information from your account, you will still see ads, they will just be less personalized. Basically, it is up to you to decide what the best way to manage activity sharing is based on how you use Facebook in relation to other websites/apps you visit.
My biggest take-aways from this experience were:
- Facebook has access to a lot of information about what I do when I’m online, even when I’m not on Facebook.
- I was shocked to see that there were 790 websites/apps/organizations/businesses who had sent information about my activities to Facebook in the last two years. Now I will think twice about logging into a website or app via Facebook.
- I was surprised to see just how many interactions were sent from each app/website. On LinkedIn alone, 2,522 interactions were sent!
- I am now pondering how many purchases I made the last two years that may have been influenced by personalized advertising that resulted from this off-Facebook activity data.
So remember, what happens off-Facebook may also relate to what you see on Facebook.