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Facebook's reworking of Microsoft's old ad platform provides marketers with cross-device tracking capabilities and metrics. Will Atlas lift the social network to Googalian heights?


It's been nearly two years since Mark Zuckerberg declared that Facebook was destined to become a mobile company, and a significant advance in that direction was made last week with the introduction of Atlas. The ad server it bought from Microsoft has been retooled to track consumers via their Facebook IDs, not cookies. That capability not only provides an avenue for marketers to target people on mobile and the Web, but also, perhaps, provides them with the best cross-channel tracking system presented to date—even if one has to go through Facebook to activate it.

“You'll be able to target and measure ads by using people's Facebook IDs,” Facebook's CPG business lead Eric Berman told a roomful of beverage company marketers at eBev 2014 last week in Atlanta. “You can leverage all the different ways of targeting and building audiences on Facebook and use that across the Web outside of Facebook. You can also track across devices. We're talking about mobile and PC and tablet. It's pretty powerful.”

Financial analysts and marketing pundits alike are pondering whether Facebook's transmogrification of what was essentially an ad tracker at Microsoft will place it alongside Google in dominance of the digital space. “Facebook has just upped the ante by seeing Google's cookie alternative and raising them one,” says Dayna Moon, senior director of social at Silicon Valley agency 3Q Digital. “Facebook is inching closer to not only addressing the online-to-offline-dollars equation, but solving it. The caveat is that users have to be on Facebook.”

The social network clearly has bigger plans for Atlas than did Microsoft. It's re-introduction of the ad platform was accompanied by announcements of partnerships with several companies across the spectrum of marketing services. One of them, SEO provider Marin Software, positions Atlas to play in Google's primary field of search.

“For a lot of marketers Google has been dominant, but now advertisers must consider Facebook as a significant marketing channel. It can't be avoided anymore,” says Anita Avram, Marin's director of partnerships. “If I'm logged in to Facebook and I go into another site, my Facebook ID goes there, too. That's a very strong alternative to just using cookies.”

While Facebook will maintain strict privacy about actual IDs via Atlas, a company such as Marin will be able to combine data from disparate sources with customer data from Atlas to optimize search and guide clients in allocating their budgets more efficiently across channels. “It will help us deduplicate audiences on mobile,” Avram says. “Right now we're very much focused on desktop.”

The CEO of Atlas's video partner, Innovid, thinks the emergence of Facebook's ad server will open the door for marketers to use video in ways they have long used display. “In video, marketers still think TV spots,” says Innovid's Zvika Netter. “But when you have audience data like this, you can target and change creative in real time for a specific audience. It becomes possible to do sequential messaging, where you break up an ad into four or five pieces of a story and have it follow someone throughout his day—on his phone in the morning, on his desktop at work, on PlayStation in the evening.”

Netter maintains that brands have large stores of video footage on their websites and in their vaults that can be repurposed in different forms and lengths across channels. Innovid clients such as Nissan and Chrysler, he says by way of example, could use the Atlas cross-device data to track how people view videos based on their context. Armed with that intelligence, they could fine-tune video to pump up clicks or viewing time.

“Using contextual placements, we've seen engagement rates of anywhere from 3 to 5% versus 0.5% for preroll and zero-point-zero something for auto ads on TV,” Netter says. “And you don't pay a cent more for media, you just spend for the technology--maybe an extra $1.50 on a $20 CPM. We could try to do this with DFA [Google's DoubleClick for Advertisers], but you're relying on cookies and it's less accurate.”

The excitement level surrounding Atlas is high in a digital space where innovations are spawned on what sometimes appears to be a daily basis. But, just as with start-ups, the value of Facebook Atlas will only become apparent once a significant number of marketers get their hands on it. A line is already forming for test drives.

“I think [Atlas] could be a game changer when I think of how we could employ this to benefit advertisers outside of the world of cookies,” says Ernie Capobianco, CEO of conversion optimization agency SQ1. “We've requested a demo from Facebook and haven't gotten a response yet.”

And then there's Atlas's obvious limitation. “The functionality of tying users' activities across devices is essential,” says Finn Faldi, CEO of ad server Trueeffect. “But the functionality hinges on Facebook data, which means two things: that only Facebook users will be tracked and targeted and that Facebook, not advertisers, will own the data.”

But if Atlas does prove to be the answer to the cookie question, chances are as strong as the shoulders of its world-bearing namesake that marketers will embrace it--if only for access to its 200 million users in North America.

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