Is Facebook's Atlas carrying the future of cross platform digital marketing?

Atlas allows Facebook to gain a clear lead for cross platform targeting due to its head start with logged-in users, says Mel Exon.

Mel Exon is managing director, BBH, and co-founder of BBH Labs
Mel Exon is managing director, BBH, and co-founder of BBH Labs

In Greek mythology, Atlas was the primordial Titan who held up the celestial spheres – or so Wikipedia tells me. In my column last month about the Financial Times’ new ‘cost per hour’ (CPH) metric, I also began to talk about how Facebook’s Atlas, the social platform’s wholly owned, newly retooled cross-platform ad network, is shaping up to be a veritable giant, with a series of disruptive initiatives tackling how ads are served and measured.

While the FT’s CPH metric challenges the CTR for dominance once and for all, Atlas exposes the weaknesses of cookies and then goes several steps toward offering a solution.

Atlas exposes the weaknesses of cookies and then goes several steps toward offering a solution

Founded in 2001, in some ways, Atlas is a story of a company that may have been around for a while, but simply refused to lose relevance as the market evolved. Bought by Facebook in 2013, in 2014 Atlas relaunched with what it described as an "entirely rebuilt code base and user interface".

Sounds cool if you like that sort of thing, but what exactly does Atlas do, what does it promise marketers and why should we pay attention?

If you just want the headlines, there are two significant points to hang on to:

1. Atlas allows you to reach ‘real’ people, not target proxy audiences.

2. It can track users as they move across devices and from mobile to web. Yes, it claims, advertisers can look forward to having all FB’s targeting precision now accessible across the entire web.

Atlas promises to deliver ‘people-based’ marketing, helping to reach people across platforms and devices and even linking to offline sales. How? Unlike similar existing solutions, Atlas doesn’t use cookies to track people’s movements, it uses Facebook’s persistent ID. Married to the demographic, behavioural and psychographic data already provided by its Audience Network, it starts to feel like a fairly sophisticated solution at last.

Google may have three times the market share of Facebook in the gigantic digital advertising market, but, in terms of logged-in users, Google+ is still in relative infancy. In that respect the tables are turned: Facebook has a clear advantage.

In layman’s terms, this means Atlas will follow users across the web, making a note of the ads they see, interact with and act upon, and tie that information back to their Facebook profile. In theory, this allows for more-targeted advertising on mobile devices, which – let’s face it – doesn’t travel well with cookies.

If you needed proof that cross-device tracking is important, Erik Johnson, managing director of Atlas, cites a killer stat derived from the company’s own data, but which feels intuitively right: 41% of all purchases start on one device and move to another (usually moving from smaller devices to larger, but I can only imagine our increased comfort with mobile-for-everything messing with that aspect of the finding in future).

Additional benefits will be in-depth analytics that allow marketers to create far more complex user journeys to purchase; linking mobile ad-views, desktop engagements and a real-world purchase together.

Inevitably, the issue of privacy rears its head whenever anyone mentions targeting real people.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg was quick to add clarification, stating at a recent Fortune marketing event: "Neither Facebook or Atlas tells anyone who you are."

In short, for the first time in forever, Google has a competitor with serious potential. Google may have three times the market share of Facebook in the gigantic digital advertising market, but, in terms of logged-in users, Google+ is still in relative infancy. In that respect the tables are turned: Facebook has a clear advantage.

So, in future, will Atlas get close to holding up the whole digital advertising world on its own? Almost certainly not. Partic­ularly in a fluctuating, misunderstood and still emergent market, there is always room for different players. And, of course, competition is only healthy, especially from a media-buying standpoint if you’re a marketer. One thing is certain though: Atlas is raising the bar.

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