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Chew on this:

  • There are 4,000 unmarried senior citizens in Canada who like rabbits.
  • There are 20,000 people in Canada who have been engaged longer than a year and like alcoholic beverages.
  • There are 3,000 Canadian lesbians in their twenties who are parents.

Ten years ago, getting access to this kind of data would have required hiring an expensive market research firm to do a ton of phone polling. Even then, the numbers would be extrapolated from a small sample, given that one can't call every single Canadian. (Even if one could, how many people would respond to someone who calls and says, "Hi there! I'm calling from a polling company. What sexual orientation are you? How old are you? Do you have any children?")

Nobody. That's about how many.

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Today, everything is different. I pulled the above stats in about three minutes from Facebook. (Granted, this only measures people with Facebook accounts. But by Facebook's measurement, about 71 per cent of Canadians have active accounts.)

Facebook has become the largest and most effective market research organization in the world. And hardly anybody realizes the volume of data that marketers with a free Facebook ads account (using its "Audience Insights" tool) can pull from it.

The true genius of Mark Zuckerberg was creating a space where people felt comfortable giving their personal data up, in the service of completing their personal profile.

But it's smarter than what people enter.

  • If Facebook notices that you have been looking at a lot of pages about New Zealand, airlines, and travel insurance, you are now in the “Travel Intenders: New Zealand” bucket.
  • Start posting links about arthritis and you’ll start seeing arthritis medication ads in your News Feed.
  • Even as recently as last week, Facebook added the ability for people to create scrapbook-like photo albums for their pets. If you make one (as I have done for my lovable 20-pound cat, Taiko), Facebook now adds you to the “pet owners” audience bucket for future ad targeting.

Little wonder satirical website The Onion "reported" that the CIA considers Facebook to be its best asset. "After years of secretly monitoring the public, we were astounded that so many people would willingly publicize where they live, their religious and political views, an alphabetized list of all their friends, personal e-mail addresses, phone numbers, hundreds of photos of themselves, and even status updates of what they were doing moment-to-moment," said a fictional CIA executive. (Watch: "CIA's 'Facebook' Program Dramatically Cut Agency's Costs")

For advertisers and agencies, of course, this is a godsend. For example, my digital marketing agency, engageQ, is pitching a wealth management firm. They're trying to reach older entrepreneurs in B.C. and Alberta. We recommended Facebook's Lead Ads product – a new ad format which only works on mobile. "I don't think our audience uses smartphones," the president said. So we checked. Turns out there are 125,000 small business owners over the age of 50 in that region. More than half of them use Facebook with smartphones.

That check took us about 30 seconds to do.

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And it's more than numbers. Facebook's partnership with data providers gives you insights into the personalities, lifestyle, and shopping behaviours of your targets.

Let's say you sell baby formula. About 5.5 million parents of children aged 0-3 have Facebook accounts in the U.S. and Canada. By entering this info into Audience Insights, you will learn that:

  • 74 per cent of them are married (that’s 59 per cent higher than the average Facebook user)
  • They are more likely to be nurses or in personal care than others
  • Chicago and Houston have the largest number of these people
  • They click Facebook ads more than twice as often
  • Half rent and half own their homes (that’s more renters than the average)
  • They’re more likely to purchase with cash than credit
  • They are 17 per cent more likely to be a “high spender”
  • They are more likely to own a full-sized SUV or minivan

It gets even more powerful when you add social connections. You can target a specific audience, then further refine it only to people who are Facebook friends with people who already like your brand, providing powerful recommendation-based social proof.

Or upload your existing customer list or e-mail marketing database (e-mail addresses and/or phone numbers) to do an analysis of your own specific community.

Facebook's Audience Insights tool could very well be the strongest arrow in your marketing quiver. And now you are one of the few who realize it. Use the power wisely, young Jedi.

Tod Maffin is president of engageQ digital, a Vancouver- and Toronto-based digital marketing agency, specializing in online advertising, digital marketing and social engagement. His web site, todmaffin.com, has many more resources.

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