The Facebook Pixel, Explained

Tucked away inside websites across the internet, the Facebook Pixel calmly watches what we do online. Whether we’re reading up on politics or adding items to a shopping cart, it keeps tabs for future reference.

And by “future reference,” we mean “future advertising.”

This post will take a closer look at the Facebook Pixel. But seeing as the pixel itself is an invisible snippet of code, we’ll need a visual stand-in. So let’s look at this guy and his pre-faded, unmistakably casual maritime sweater.

If you go to Esprit’s German website and add this sweater to your cart, it looks like this:

Nothing to see here, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, the Facebook Pixel is going bananas.

Let’s fire up Chrome’s “Developer Tools” to see what’s happening behind the scenes. There’s a filter for “facebook,” so all of the code and URLs and cookies popping up on the right are linked to Facebook.

Of course, if the Facebook Pixel chills out on the websites we visit and triggers ads later on, it can do the same for your website. Even if your store doesn’t have dreamy models gazing at your shoppers, you can still take advantage of this tool.

This post will go over:

  • What, exactly, the Facebook Pixel is
  • What it’s used for
  • How it works
  • How you can use it to optimize your Facebook ads

What Is the Facebook Pixel?

The Facebook Pixel is code embedded into a website that links individuals’ onsite behavior to Facebook user profiles. This sync between a website visitor and their Facebook account enables the social media platform to deliver ads based on actions that people take on other domains.

In Facebook’s own words, this code “is an analytics tool that allows you to measure the effectiveness of your advertising by understanding the actions people take on your website.”

While the Facebook Pixel is indeed used to “understand the actions people take” on websites, this definition is perhaps a bit incomplete. Because it uses this data to assign people to different target groups that will be blasted engaged with ads later on.

No matter where the Facebook Pixel ends and Facebook advertising takes over, you get the idea. The Facebook Pixel:

  • Lives inside of websites
  • Tracks people’s actions while they’re there
  • And gives advertisers the ability to target them on Facebook properties

How Does the Facebook Pixel Work?

We’re going to get technical for a minute here. It won’t be painful – there will be lots of pictures and not a lot of jargon. But if you want to skip ahead to How Do You Install the Facebook Pixel or How Do You Target People With the Facebook Pixel, no hard feelings.

Still here? Great. Now, let’s go shopping!

We’re going to visit two stores today. The first, as you already saw, is Esprit. The other is Nike. There is nothing unusual about these stores; they are simply being used to represent ecommerce in general. To be sure, neither Esprit nor Nike are doing anything unusual or sinister with their tracking and advertising.

Let’s find that nice white and blue sweater again. Oh, yeah – that’s the one:

And here, again, is all the Facebook-related code spinning in the background:

The Facebook Pixel will know when we add the sweater to our cart:

Of course, we’ll never squeeze into that slim-fit sweater if we don’t stay in shape. So let’s head over to Nike for some new running gear, including these running pants:

Like Esprit (and every other ecommerce store), Nike has plenty of Facebook code keeping track of our visit:

But that won’t stop us from adding the item to our cart:

And Now for the Pixel Magic

Let’s say that we leave these sites without buying anything. Abandoned carts are a nightmare for every ecommerce shop, even the big boys.

Look at what happens the next time we go to Facebook:

A moment later, just to make sure we remember:

Another moment, and things get a bit less subtle:

Nike’s has their own Pixel, and their own Facebook ads:

Indeed, both companies’ Facebook Pixels seem to be working just fine:

The Facebook Loop

It’s impossible for us to know the sort of targeting rules that Esprit and Nike created for shoppers like us. For example, would we have seen so many ads if we hadn’t added these items to our carts? And maybe geography plays a role, too: Would these ads have appeared with the same intensity if we shopped from, say, South Korea instead of Germany?

The parameters of these companies’ Facebook campaigns – the rules, the target groups, the bids, the time period, and so on – are entirely unknown.

Even so, you can see how the Facebook Pixel operates.

  • A shopper comes by the store and looks at products – maybe even adding a couple to their cart
  • The Facebook Pixel is sitting in the background, quietly taking notes on everything that happens
  • It then syncs with the Facebook cookies residing in the visitor’s browser and flags the account as part of certain target groups
  • Thanks to this data, when the shopper hops back on Facebook or Instagram, those platforms know what they’ve been doing, and which ads they should see

How Do You Install This Thing?

Facebook has made installing the Facebook pixel thoroughly simple. As Facebook explains it,

Set up the Facebook pixel by placing pixel code on the header of your website. When someone visits your website and takes an action (like completing a purchase), the Facebook pixel is triggered and reports this action.

Pretty straightforward, right?

And if you use Shopify, it’s even easier to implement the analytics tool. You go to your Facebook Business Manager, copy the Pixel ID – not the code, just the ID – and then drop it into your Shopify store preferences:

It makes sense that installing the Facebook Pixel is as straightforward as copying and pasting. After all, having the Pixel on your site incentivizes you to advertise with Facebook, as well as Facebook-owned Instagram. That makes Facebook happy.

Facebook is also happy for you to use the Pixel because – whether you advertise with them or not – you are helping Facebook build richer profiles of its users. Having its tracking pixel scattered all over the internet lets Facebook know what its users are doing outside of the platform.

Not that anybody would ever accuse Facebook of being sneaky with data, but it is quite the coincidence that I saw this adidas running ad on Instagram the same day I was shopping at Nike.

At any rate, incentives are aligned with when it comes to installing the code in your store: You get better advertising, Facebook gets better data.

How Do You Target People With the Facebook Pixel?

If we’re being technical about it, the code doesn’t actually do any targeting. Instead, it is the foundation for targeting.

It’s up to you to tell Facebook how to target.

Inside of your Facebook Business Manager, you can create “Custom Audiences” with rules ranging from basic to super complex. For example, let’s say you sell fashion accessories, including sunglasses. The Facebook Pixel will know all the Facebook users who browsed your sunglasses, and when they did it. So you could have a Custom Audience of people who visited “sunglasses” pages on your website in the last, say, 30 days.

You can also target Facebook ads to people who have already converted. For instance, maybe you want to treat buyers with a discount code for their next purchase. You could do that by setting a URL rule for a post-conversion page –  like, say, a Thank You page.

You could flip that around and create a group of people who have been to your store but didn’t get to the Thank You page.

One more: You can create Custom Audiences based on the amount of money people spent at your store. A “Big spenders” segment could contain people you want to target with your more expensive items. (And you’ll know who the big spenders are thanks to the pixel.)

Additional Targeting Options

One of the great things about Facebook advertising is “Lookalike Audiences.” You can design Lookalike Audiences to reflect the characteristics of your best customers.

The code knows who did what on your website, and the Facebook platform can use that data to identify people who share similar traits as your visitors. So if your “Big spenders” segment is full of 25-35 year old females who live in urban areas, Facebook can create a Lookalike Audience of other 25-35 year old females who live in urban areas and who Facebook thinks might be interested in your products.

You can also use it to create what are called “custom events,” which are the more evolved relative of “standard events.” Standard events are actions that the Facebook Pixel tracks automatically, like “add to cart” and “purchase” (there are nine total). Custom events, on the other hand, are events that you design yourself, allowing you, in Facebook’s words, “to define more granular data around events.” This could be all sorts of different stuff – scroll depth, button clicks, and video tracking, to name just a few.

Creating Facebook segments and ads is a science all its own. So for now, let’s leave it there.

The takeaway is that whether you’re using out-of-the-box events or customize more advanced events, the Custom Audiences you create are underpinned by Facebook Pixel data. It can tell you who looked at the sunglasses. It also knows who did and didn’t get to your Thank You page, and how much they spent.

One of Many Advertising Tools

Facebook isn’t the only advertising tech floating around the code of sites like Nike and Esprit. And that’s why we see the same sort of ads popping up all over the place – not just at Facebook.

Here, for example, is what a visit to The New York Times looks like a day after shopping around on these two online stores:

How does The New York Times also know that we were at Esprit? Well, they don’t. But tools like Criteo, which specializes in retargeting, sure do. Criteo is one of the 30 or so advertising tools hooked up with Esprit’s website. Just as the Facebook Pixel helps Facebook fill its ad space with relevant ads, the Criteo’s of the world help The New York Times fill its ad space with relevant ads.

There are, however, a few things that make Facebook unique in this ecosystem. First off, Facebook is huge. It has a billion-plus daily active users, and at least some of them are going to be part of your target audience.

Second, Facebook’s ad platform isn’t perfect, but for scrappy ecommerce store owners, it’s pretty great. Designing ads is relatively simple, creating target groups is manageable, and of course the code is a breeze to install.

So even if you have ambitious retargeting plans, the Facebook Pixel should be one of the first tools you use.

Technical Details

If you want to get a better idea of the mechanics behind all the advertising that ecommerce stores are using, you can use the Ghostery browser extension. Every time you visit a new website, Ghostery will give you a list of the advertising, analytics, and engagement tools living on the site.

You can peer further underneath the hood with Google Chrome’s “Developer Tools,” which is standard in the Chrome browser. That’s the tool we used earlier to look at all of the code firing during our shopping trips at Esprit and Nike.

Make no mistake: You can run retargeting campaigns without knowing about this stuff. No problem. Just a heads up that there are some tools available if you want to dig around.

Want to Learn More?

Facebook can be huge for your store’s advertising and reach. Here are some more Facebook goodies.

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