Facebook Ads Targeting Options: All the Ways to Reach Your Ideal Customer
Table of Contents
We all know the story: Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in 2004 as an online student directory while attending Harvard.
Over the years, it’s evolved dramatically to become one of the largest channels for driving business growth, especially when it comes to social media marketing. This is largely thanks to the Facebook Ads platform.
Using Facebook Ads (which includes Instagram ads), you can get your product in front of more than 2 billion social media users.
Of course, not all of them care about what you're selling. But Facebook Ads provides a wide set of targeting options so that you can filter the world down to your target audience—the people who your product or service was designed for. This way, your advertising dollars are only spent on the specific audience you want to reach. That leads to better conversion rates in the long run.
Just like Facebook, the platform's algorithm and ad targeting continue to evolve. So the targeting strategies that worked five years ago don’t generate the same results in 2022.
We'll explore Facebook's ad targeting options and how you can optimize your campaigns to reach the right audience. Here’s what we’ll cover.
- How Facebook’s algorithm works
- Facebook ad targeting options
- Facebook Custom Audiences
- Lookalike Audiences
- Does Facebook targeting still work?
How Facebook’s algorithm works
Before we dive into Facebook’s targeting options, it’s first worth discussing how the platform identifies who to show your ads to.
It all comes down to data collection. Facebook collects user data in two ways:
- Behavior on Facebook: Facebook activities like the places users check into, the groups they join, the Facebook Pages they like, the stories they view, and the posts they comment on.
- Off-Facebook activity: Data collected from other sites and mobile apps that have the Facebook pixel installed or use the Facebook login. The Facebook pixel is a piece of code that advertisers can set up to track and send data to Facebook whenever someone interacts with the website or app it’s embedded on—interactions like clicking a button, submitting a form, or making a purchase. Other collected data includes IP address, web browser, the ads users click on, and the apps and domains they visit.
Facebook identifies every keyword and concept associated with each of these interactions to understand what topics users are interested in. It’ll then suggest ads and organic content related to them in their news feed.
A quick example: Based on the content someone views or interacts with both on and off Facebook, the algorithm might determine that they’re interested in environmentalism, dogs, and silly humor. So Facebook shows them dog videos, animal comics, and ads for reforestation nonprofits.
Some research shows that Facebook’s algorithm isn’t always correct. For instance, it might interpret a user as being interested in Harry Potter based on their activity—even if that activity is leaving a negative comment on a Harry Potter page.
Still, Facebook has a solid reference for what content users find worth engaging in, which tends to be the content they find most valuable. Its algorithm uses this info, plus advertisers’ targeting criteria, to determine what ads to show to each user.
Facebook ad targeting options
Audience targeting is defined at the ad set level of your Facebook Ads strategy.
Here’s how that looks in Facebook’s Ads Manager.
Broadly, Facebook splits its detailed targeting options into three categories:
But you can also target people using your own audience data. These options, often best for retargeting, generally involve uploading data to create unique audiences:
- Custom Audiences
- Lookalike Audiences
We’ll cover each of these ad targeting options below in more detail.
Many variables fall under Facebook’s demographic targeting umbrella. There are the basics: age, gender, location, and language. Then there are the finer demographic details relating to your audiences’ education, finances, life events, parental status, relationship status, and work.
Age, gender, and location are straightforward. Using these options, you can narrow your target audience to people of one gender who fall within a certain age range and are located somewhere specific.
Such targeting is often most applicable to ecommerce retailers and other B2C companies that create products for a specific demographic, like men’s grooming products or cosmetics.
If you don’t have a defined audience, we recommend initially keeping these targeting options broad. Then let your campaign performance guide which groups to focus on. For instance, you may notice in your reporting data that your products underperform among people under age 25, in which case you could consider adding a filter for users over 25. Many times, removing poorly performing age and gender segments can drastically cut your cost to acquire a customer (CAC).
Before we move onto detailed demographic targeting, here are a few quick notes:
- Unless your business is trying to reach a particular language-speaking audience, don’t target based on languages. Not everyone has their languages accurately listed on their Facebook account, and you don’t want to rule people out. The only exception is when you’re trying to reach people who speak a certain language in a country that doesn’t typically speak that language, e.g., English speakers in Taiwan.
- With location targeting, you have a few options based on whether your audience resides somewhere or are simply passing through it as travelers. So if you’re advertising a brick-and-mortar shop, be sure to select the option for “People living in this location.” Otherwise, you’ll waste money advertising to people who might just be visiting for short periods.
Detailed demographic targeting
Under Facebook’s detailed targeting options, you can reach more specific demographic segments.
These targeting criteria include:
- Education: Education level, fields of study, schools, and undergrad years.
- Financial: Household income—that is, you can target people based on the average income levels in the ZIP code where they live.
- Life events: Anniversary, away from family, away from hometown, birthday, friends of particular demographic groups, long-distance relationships, new job, new relationship, newly engaged (3 months, 6 months, 1 year), newlywed (3 months, 6 months, 1 year), and recently moved.
- Parents: You can target all parents or parents of specific age groups (between infancy and adults).
- Relationship: Relationship status, which includes civil union, domestic partnership, and open relationship besides the typical options.
- Work: Employers, industries, and job titles.
The criteria you should choose will depend on your product or service. A few examples:
- Project management software companies like Monday.com or Wrike might target by industries and job title.
- Wedding planning services like The Knot or Zola could target by life events (newly engaged) and relationship status (engaged).
- Luxury goods like Hermès and Burberry could target by household income.
Some of these demographic targeting options account for “transitional audiences,” those that constantly change. In the case of The Knot and Zola, for instance, the “newly engaged” audience naturally changes as more people get engaged and others get married.
Running ads that target transitional audiences often means greater longevity for your ad creatives. Why? You can keep running your ads without tiring out the same group of people with them.
In fact, one of our clients once shared that the “friends of…” targeting option (under the life events category) benefits from this principle. A “Buy This For Your Friend” ad for very specific occasions like birthdays probably won’t cause ad fatigue since it won’t always apply to users.
That said, you should still regularly test new ads—it’s just that transitional audiences give more leeway than fixed audiences.
Based on how users interact with content on its platform, Facebook has a treasure trove of data on what people are interested in. So you can set your ads to reach your ideal customer based on their specific interests—known as interest targeting.
In the past, these options were nearly limitless. However, in recent years, Facebook has discontinued certain interest targeting options for what can be perceived as sensitive topics.
Most notably, in January 2022, Facebook removed the ability to target users based on:
- Health causes
- Sexual orientation
- Religious practices and groups
- Political beliefs, social issues, causes, organizations, and figures
In spite of this change, you can still reach users based on their interest in a wide variety of topics.
- Business and industry: Advertising, agriculture, architecture, aviation, banking, business, construction, design, economics, engineering, entrepreneurship, health care, higher education, management, marketing, nursing, online, personal finance, real estate, retail, sales, science, and small business.
- Entertainment: Games, live events, movies, music, reading, and TV.
- Family and relationships: Family, fatherhood, friendship, marriage, motherhood, parenting, and weddings.
- Fitness and wellness: Bodybuilding, physical exercise, physical fitness, running, weight training, and yoga.
- Food and drink: Alcoholic beverages, beverages, cooking, cuisine, food, and restaurants.
- Hobbies and activities: Arts and music, current events, home and garden, pets, politics and social issues, travel, and vehicles.
- Shopping and fashion: Beauty, clothing, fashion accessories, shopping, toys.
- Sports and outdoors: Outdoor recreation and sports.
- Technology: Computers and consumer electronics.
Each of these broad interest categories contains subcategories with even more detailed options, so you can get extremely granular. For instance, you can target users interested in horseback riding (under Sports and outdoors > outdoor recreation) or Japanese cuisine (under Food and drink > cuisine).
Behavior targeting is the last of Facebook’s major detailed targeting categories.
This type of targeting revolves around user activities and behaviors, some of which may come across as oddly specific.
- Anniversary: Target people with anniversaries within the next 61-90 days.
- Consumer Classification: This option is specifically for people who prefer mid-value or high-value goods in a variety of countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India, Indonesia, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, South Africa, Turkey, and UAE.
- Digital Activities: This option (with a capitalized “Activities”) refers to new active businesses within 6-, 12-, or 24-month time frames.
- Digital activities: Operating system used, canvas gaming, console gamers, Facebook Payments users (30 and 90 days), Facebook access: older devices and OS, Facebook page admins, internet browser used, operating system used, people who have visited Facebook Gaming, people who have watched a Rewarded Video in the last 30 days, small business owners, and technology early adopters.
- Expats: Family of those who live abroad, friends of those live abroad, and options for people who live in just about any other country.
- Mobile Device User: All mobile devices by brand, all mobile devices by operating system, Android users (with or without 360 degree media supported), mobile Facebook access (all mobile devices, feature phones, smartphones and tablets, only tablets), network connection, new smartphone and tablet users, and OnePlus owners.
- Mobile Device User/Device Use Time: Target anyone who’s used a mobile device for less than a month, or across longer time frames—to more than 25 months.
- More Categories: Interested in upcoming events and marketing API developers.
- Purchase behavior: Engaged shoppers (people who have purchased products from Facebook in the past).
- Soccer: Friends of soccer fans, soccer fans of different content engagement levels (high or moderate).
- Travel: Commuters, frequent travelers, frequent international travelers, and returned from travels either 1 or 2 weeks ago.
The highly specific targeting options—like the soccer fans and marketing API developers—reflect niche segments that a decent number of companies want to reach. So much so that Facebook has deemed them worth including in its behavioral targeting list.
As with the targeting options mentioned earlier, the criteria you should choose ultimately depend on your product or service.
So if you sell gaming headsets, target console gamers. If you sell iPhone cases, only target iPhone users. And so on.
Ignore the behaviors that aren’t relevant to your brand or that you don’t have much information about. Otherwise, you may unnecessarily filter out potential customers.
Facebook Custom Audiences
We’ve covered Facebook’s three main categories of detailed targeting options—now let’s get to the targeting options that rely on your audience data. This involves creating Custom Audiences.
You can create a Custom Audience using your own data (like an email list) or Meta’s (like your Facebook Page likes). With this method, you can reach people who’ve already interacted with your business in some way.
Custom Audiences are powerful for reaching users across all stages of the marketing funnel. Here’s what we mean:
- Prospecting campaigns. You can exclude active subscribers and customers from your ads so that they only appear in front of new audiences—people who’ve never interacted with your company.
- Retargeting campaigns. You can create ads specifically for people who’ve visited your site, looked at certain pages, or even added something to their shopping cart without actually checking out. Showing more tailored ads, like ones that reiterate your value prop, to past website visitors can improve your odds of converting them.
- Reach existing customers. You can upsell related products or accessories to people who’ve already purchased something from you—a great way to improve your customer lifetime value. Alternatively, you can create ads with discounts and freebies to reward customers and build loyalty.
One important note: You should only upload customer lists of people who’ve given you permission to market to them. In other words, don’t scrape consumer data or buy harvested email lists. And don’t sell or transfer your Custom Audiences, either—Facebook’s terms prohibit this.
Traditionally, Facebook Ads also offered Connections targeting. With this option, you could reach people based on interactions with your Facebook Page, app, or one of your Facebook events. For instance, you could set ads to reach only the people who liked or followed your Page, or conversely, exclude your ads from appearing to them.
However, with changes to Facebook’s Pages experience, the platform began phasing out Connections targeting in April 2022. It advised companies with existing Connections audiences to convert them into Custom or Lookalike audiences before deleting them on June 15, 2022.
Custom Audiences are great for reaching your existing customers, but even better, you can also use them to create Lookalike Audiences.
Lookalikes are the people Facebook perceives as similar to your specified “seed” audience (one of your Custom Audiences). Facebook analyzes your seed audience to determine what they most have in common with one another—and then uses this data to find other people who fit the same profile.
An important heads up: Because Lookalike Audiences are used to target a more specific group of people, they're the most expensive targeting option. This is because Facebook Ads runs a bidding system, where advertisers compete to get their ads in certain placements and in front of specific audiences. In general, the narrower your targeting, the more expensive your ads will be.
You can create a Lookalike Audience in four quick steps:
- Pick your seed audience from your Custom Audience list.
- Specify where your Lookalikes should be located.
- Choose the number of Lookalike Audiences you want. You can create multiple lookalikes with different levels of similarity to your source.
- Select an audience size between a range of 1%-10% to represent how closely you'd like users to match. Choosing 1% would mean identifying the top 1% of Facebook users who most closely match your seed audience.
Many companies create Lookalike Audiences using their existing customers as a seed audience. But you can also create a Lookalike Audience based on other actions, like users who have added to their carts, attended one of your webinars, or subscribed to your newsletter. The point here: It's not just current customers that can be leveraged for Lookalikes.
And even if you don’t have a contacts list, you can mirror your Facebook fan base or use data from the Facebook pixel to create a seed audience.
The challenge with Lookalike Audiences: You need a lot of data for them to work well. While Facebook requires a minimum of 100 people from a single country for a seed audience, we recommend using a list with at least 1,000 contacts for better results. The better quality the seed audience, the more likely your Lookalike Audience will convert.
Does Facebook targeting still work?
In September 2020, Apple introduced a new version of its operating system, iOS 14. One of its biggest changes: Apple’s privacy framework, App Tracking Transparency (ATT).
With ATT, apps on iOS 14.5 and later devices must request user consent to track their activities.
In other words, apps like Facebook can no longer automatically collect user data by default, including data like purchases and website visits.
The initial announcement of the feature sent brands into a tailspin. However, according to some preliminary research, an average of 26% of users give consent to apps—higher than early estimates ranging from 2% to 20%. And when apps are weighted according to their size, the average opt-in rate is 39%, a sign that larger apps have higher opt-in rates.
While opt-outs are not as drastic as some expected, Facebook Ads is working with less data than before. As more people move to iOS 14.5 devices, opted-out users will be excluded from targetable audiences, meaning potentially smaller audience sizes. Retargeting data also becomes increasingly limited. In short, it becomes harder for advertisers to understand and optimize their ads’ performance.
These changes aren’t the end of the world for Facebook ads, though. Though audience sizes are smaller, Facebook remains one of the strongest advertising platforms for finding potential customers because of its reach.
You simply need to adapt your targeting strategy based on Facebook’s changes. The exact strategy you use depends on factors like your product, target audience, and the maturity of your ad account (the amount of data your Facebook Ads account has collected over time). Here are some tactics we suggest testing:
- Try broad targeting. Broad targeting involves leaving your campaign’s targeting parameters open-ended—the opposite of traditional marketing wisdom that advises hyper-specific targeting. It’s worth experimenting with if you’re selling a product with mass appeal and have a very mature ad account (at least 1,000 conversions recorded through Facebook Ads).
- Create Lookalike Audiences based on your site visitors and Facebook Page interactions. Custom Audiences for retargeting have less data to work with as a result of ATT. As a possible solution, consider creating Lookalikes of your retargeting data sources.
- Target media outlets enjoyed by your target audience. Since Facebook has phased out detailed targeting options relating to people’s beliefs, you can’t reach certain groups as easily as before. One potential fix: Use interest targeting to hone in on your ideal customers’ favorite media outlets—media outlets are a good proxy for beliefs and interests.
As Facebook Ads continues to evolve alongside consumer expectations of privacy, we expect that targeting best practices will naturally change over time.
Remember, your company isn’t the only one affected by Facebook’s changes. So whenever an update is implemented, we advise you to be proactive and experiment with your ad targeting options. Doing so might keep you ahead of the competition.
Thanks to its rich diversity of targeting options, Facebook ad campaigns can reach just about any niche audience.
But good targeting is just one aspect of successful Facebook advertising. You also need to design good ad creatives and optimize your ad landing pages for more conversions. To find out more about how to adapt your Facebook ads in a post-iOS 14 world, sign up for our weekly Growth Newsletter or comprehensive Growth Program.
Become a better marketer, in minutes.
Join the Growth Newsletter. Thousands of agency experiments and interviews with the world’s best marketers distilled into concise, actionable growth tactics. For free, in your inbox, every week.
mParticle is the customer data platform (CDP) powering Venmo, Airbnb, and Gymshark. It captures real-time data and delivers it across your marketing tools. The result? Powerful, timely, and respectful personalization. Demand Curve community members can claim either one year of free mParticle or $25k in credits here.
Read these next
What is the Ideal Instagram Video Length? (5 Formats Compared)
Doing well with IG video content isn't about how long or short your video is. It's about whether you understand the nuances of each format and work within their constraints to make videos people actually want to watch. Here's how to do it.
Instagram Story Video Length: How Long Your Videos Should Be
Instagram Stories can be up to 15 seconds long. Learn how to use Instagram Stories effectively for your business.
Join 50,000+ founders and marketers getting actionable growth insights every week.
Read our free content and join our community of 50,000 advanced marketers.
Free tactical growth guides
Comprehensive articles on growth topics
Chat with other experts
Advanced growth tactics sent via email
A bi-annual virtual conference with some of the top voices in Growth.
Landing Page Teardowns
In-depth breakdowns on what top companies are and aren't doing well on their websites.