Email and Phone Number Targeting Keeps Facebook a Step Ahead of Twitter in Race To Capitalize on Your Data

Mark Zuckerberg Facebook
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have a big head start in turning their users’ data into money, but don’t count out Twitter just yet.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

You probably know the deal by now. Facebook and Twitter spent years making themselves valuable to their users by offering a great free service with few strings attached. Now that they’re hooked, both are working overtime to make themselves valuable to their real customers—advertisers. And they do that by attaching new strings to users’ account. On one end of those strings is your personal information. On the other end are the advertisers. The trick is to attach as many as possible without making you feel so jerked around that you shut down your account.

Thursday brought strong new efforts in this vein from both companies. First came news via Twitter’s advertising blog that announced the micro-blogging service would begin offering “interest targeting” for promoted tweets and promoted accounts (i.e., tweets and accounts that advertisers pay to display in your timeline). You’ll be targeted based on your interests, as determined by Twitter’s assessment of the accounts you follow and engage with. So if you’re a dog lover, to use one of Twitter’s examples, get ready to be served ads about the next dog-related animated movie. Or if you follow indie bands, a new indie band that considers itself similar to the ones you follow might pay Twitter to promote its account in your stream.

To Facebook, of course, that type of interest-based targeting is old hat. Its next step: using your phone number and email address to connect you with advertisers. This isn’t as sinister as some have made it out to be. The company won’t actually share your contact info with advertisers, as Anthony Ha explains in TechCrunch. Rather, it will allow companies that already have your email or phone number—theoretically because you gave it to them voluntarily—to send that information to Facebook, in encrypted form. Facebook will then scan its own database for a match, also using encryption. So if you’ve provided the same contact info to Facebook, it will add you to an anonymized list of targets for that company’s ads on the site. “Advertisers don’t get any data from Facebook; Facebook doesn’t get any data from advertisers,” a company rep assured me via email.

Of course, you should always feel free to mentally append the phrase “for now” to any privacy assurances from a company whose business model is targeted advertising. (Twitter, for its part, notes to AdAge that the information it’s sharing with advertisers is “based entirely on public signals people are sending” as opposed to private data. For now.)