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Facebook Reclaims Some Value for Real Estate Advertisers; Deadline for Revising Google Campaigns Now October 19th

Prior to 2019, Facebook offered tremendous value to real estate agents as an advertising platform. With a rich set of demographic targeting capabilities, an impressive variety of useful ad formats, affordable rates and low dollar minimum ad buys, Facebook was every real estate agent’s best friend. From 2015 through early 2019, we could create low cost ads promoting listings that were highly targeted to prospective buyers.

In that golden age of Facebook for real estate agents we could:

  • Target ads to Facebook users based on income level. If we were promoting an expensive home, we could target more affluent individuals.
  • Target ads to Facebook users based on whether or not they have children of a specific age range. If we were promoting a large house with many bedrooms, we could essentially target those families that likely needed 4, 5 and 6 bedroom houses.
  • Target ads to Facebook users based on specific interests. If the property we were marketing was a horse property, we could target horse enthusiasts. If the property was in a golf community, we could target golfers. If the property had a large fenced yard, we could target dog lovers.

Even in those days, I have to admit that it was difficult to prove that targeted advertising on Facebook directly drove faster sales or more competition among buyers. In my personal practice, there were a few instances where a buyer specifically admitted to seeing a particular ad. But at least the advertising made sense.

Then, back in March of 2019, the department of Housing & Urban Development sued Facebook, claiming that it’s targeting capabilities were discriminatory.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement Thursday. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/03/28/hud-charges-facebook-with-housing-discrimination/

I’m less than surprised that Ben Carson, the guy who thought that Joseph built the pyramids for grain storage, was behind the legal action against Facebook.

In my opinion, that action was wrong, unnecessary and demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the real estate industry and of Facebook as a platform. I believe Facebook should have defended itself in court. But instead, they decided to settle. In settling, Facebook agreed to strongly limit the targeting capabilities of ads related to “Offers for Housing”.

What exactly did Facebook take away from real estate advertisers? Everything. Technically, they took away all demographic and behavioral targeting including age, presence of children in the household, income, job title and interests (e.g. golf, horses, dogs, etc.) They also eliminated custom audiences and lookalike audiences. The only ads that could run for real estate related offers were those targeting a specific geography (i.e. Everyone within a 15 mile radius of a specific location).

Maybe these heavy handed restrictions would make sense in a world where Facebook was the sole and exclusive channel by which these “housing offers” were made. But I argue, that properties listed in and syndicated via an MLS service have been suitably disclosed to the general public. And that it is in no way discriminatory for the seller or their real estate agent to create enhanced awareness and incremental visibility for these properties to a targeted audience of the prospective buyers most likely to be interested in them. By the way, Facebook never allowed any advertiser to target any audience by race.

Facebook punted on the real estate sector and left real estate agents with nothing but the least efficient digital buy on the market.

So, a lot of us shifted dollars into Google Ads. Google had made no agreement with HUD, and still offered targeting by age, gender, income, interests and behavioral (i.e. what websites you’re visiting) characteristics. Ads could run across the internet on Google’s display network (e.g. sites like Weather.com, ESPN, Gmail, Blogger, etc.) or on YouTube.

Unfortunately, Google’s inventory mostly didn’t perform on par with the pre-HUD- suit Facebook. Ad banners across the web just weren’t as engaging as a Sponsored Post on Facebook. And YouTube ads required that you have good quality video to run — a significant expense and practical hardship for many of us. And then finally in June of 2020, HUD caught up with Google and bullied them into revising their advertising policies as well. I haven’t been through all of the settings in my Google Ads to determine if the HUD action left Google’s offerings as toothless as Facebook, but Google has announced the following:

In an effort to improve inclusivity for users disproportionately affected by societal biases; housing, employment, and credit products or services can no longer be targeted to audiences based on gender, age, parental status, marital status, or ZIP code.

Google ads email from august 18, 2020

Facebook Brings Back Some Value

As big as Facebook is, and with election year ad spending in full swing, it probably took awhile for them to feel the pain of choking out real estate advertisers. Or maybe they just realized Google outflanked them by not placing such heavy restrictions on Google Ads. For whatever reason, Facebook has limped back into the game with a new targeting option called “House Hunting”. Here’s what it looks like in the Facebook interface:

What I’ve heard second hand from an advertiser who has a Facebook representative is that Facebook has come up with this filter based on “behavioral characteristics”, 100% independent of variables like gender, race, age, etc. They’re probably using Facebook Pixel derived data to look at what website users are visiting and segmenting users who visit sites like Zillow, Realtor.com, etc. That same advertiser reported that ads they were running based on this new targeting option were performing really well. I’ve used it while boosting 3-4 of my most recent posts. It’s really hard to tell how much better it’s working. But at least it’s something.

Key Takeaway

If you’re a real estate agent and you want to advertise your listings online, I think Facebook is back to being your best bet. Give that House Hunting targeting option a try. On the whole, there’s no ad platform that’s easier to use than Facebook (just stick with simply boosting posts from your Facebook business page). Compared to Google, Facebook is still relatively inexpensive — you can get a lot of visibility for a property with $20 or $40 bucks. Make sure that you’re pointing those posts out to YOUR WEBSITE and that you’re remarketing to people who click through.

And if you need help with stuff like that, contact me at steve@loudoundigital.com

About Author


Steve Gaitten

Steve Gaitten is a writer, marketer and technologist. Steve earned 3 US patents for his innovative work in online financial services during his time at America Online (1995 - 2007). Other interests include golf, guitar and gardening -- pursuits Steve indulges in regularly at his home in Northern Virginia where he lives with his wife Kelly and beloved dogs Tegan & Pepper.

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