Targeting for Facebook Ads: What’s Changing & Why?

As one of the greatest additions to a digital marketer’s arsenal, segmented targeting has been particularly useful for those utilizing Facebook Ads Manager and Marketing API. 

While Facebook’s intended goal was to provide users with hyper-targeted ads based on specific behaviors, demographics and locations, the utilization of targeting segments resulted in the unintended exclusion of users based on personal characteristics protected by the Fair Housing Act. Addressing this issue, Facebook announced sweeping changes to the way digital marketers are able to reach their intended audiences. Most significantly, ads which market certain opportunities (and have a history of discrimination) will need to self-identify as one of three Special Ad Categories: 

  • Housing
  • Employment
  • Credit

Also referred to as “HEC” advertisements, Special Ad Categories restrict the use of targeting segments based on location, age, and demographic information related to protected classes. Across Facebook Ads Manager & Marketing API, campaigns marketing HEC opportunities will no longer be able to target a specific zip code, nor will they be able to restrict their audience by age range or gender. Location targeting is still permitted but requires a 15-mile minimum radius. 

In addition, marketers will also be prohibited from utilizing Lookalike Audiences. Facebook has yet to reveal what exact characteristics these audiences are comprised of, and instead describes them as a user pool with “common qualities (demographic information or interests)” of the original audience source. Complaints filed against Facebook by civil liberties organizations claimed that these “pre-populated lists” were a direct violation of the Fair Housing Act. Specifically, the National Fair Housing Alliance and American Civil Liberties Union alledged that Facebook allowed advertisers to  intentionally exclude protected groups by taking behavioral/interest insights into account, as behavioral/interest insights are influenced by “race, national origin, sex, age, disability, or family status.”

Despite these substantial changes, one takeaway worth noting is that marketers within a Special Ad Category can still create, target, and exclude custom audiences comprised of 1st party data. For RentPath in particular, all social media campaigns are still able to leverage our custom and audiences. Comprised of high-intent users, this data provides clients with the most up-to-date, in-market audiences across Facebook and Instagram. 

In addition to audiences created with 1st party data, Facebook offers HEC advertisements a substitute for Lookalikes: Special Ad Audiences. These users mimic Lookalikes in that the intended audience’s online behavior is taken into account and mirrored in a group comprised of new users. However, Special Ad Audiences have been edited to avert discriminatory targeting and exclusion.

Knowing that these changes are already underway, what do developers and digital marketers need to keep in mind to create and maintain the most effective campaigns? 


Facebook began removing obsolete targeting segments on August 19, 2019 and has reported that nearly 5,000 targeting options will be quashed between that date and January 2020. 

Ad sets utilizing an outdated targeting segment will receive a flag with alternate audience recommendations. Housing, employment and credit-related ads that continue to utilize a disapproved targeting segment after January 2020 will stop delivering to the intended audience. This applies to campaigns built using both the Marketing API and Ads Manager. However, only existing and unedited ad sets have until January 2020 to comply with Facebook’s new anti-discriminatory practices. 

Campaigns edited or created in Ads Manager after August 25, 2019 must opt into a Special Ads Category and their corresponding targeting restrictions. For existing campaigns (built prior to August 26, 2019) edits to targeting, creative, objective or placement would trigger the re-review process, prompting a user to select a Special Ads Category.

With regard to Facebook’s Marketing API, Special Ad Categories will not become available until September 16, 2019. The date of enforcement for new and edited campaigns not in compliance with Facebook’s housing, employment, and credit standards on the API is December 4, 2019. Upon this date, any campaign created or edited in the Marketing API which has not been updated to reflect a Special Ad Category distinction will no longer remain live.

By Ashley Shaw, Digital Marketing Analyst

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