Earlier, I wrote a blog about whether or not to delete the Facebook page of your educational institution in response to the fuss around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the broadcast of Arjen Lubach. Since then, a number of people who I’ve spoken to have asked about the Facebook pixel. What should educational institutions do with it? In this blog, I answer that question.
What is the Facebook pixel and how is it used by educational institutions?
A Facebook pixel is actually a code that you activate on your website (in your CMS). This allows you to see which people come to your website, which pages visitors view and which advertisements they have clicked on (cookies from the website also play a role in this). On this basis you can show a visitor an advertisement that matches his or her surfing behaviour. Of course, this requires that the visitor to your website also be logged in to Facebook.
For example, your educational institution organizes an open day. Your website contains information about the open day and also about the courses. Because the Facebook pixel is active on your website, you can later target someone who visits your website on Facebook with an advertisement about your open day and/or an advertisement for the course that he or she was interested in. This is both convenient and probably relevant for the person. Through this, you increase the chance that this visitor comes to your open day.
In addition, Facebook collects and categorizes all Facebook profiles, known as profiling. Facebook, with its far-reach (always further than we think) can identify a reasonably good estimate of the group of potential students who are likely to be interested in an open day at your institution and you can therefore target them via the advertising model of Facebook.
This potential student profile is enhanced because the Facebook pixel is active on the various websites of educational institutions. After all, if a user visits three websites of educational institutions, is 16-17 years old and is almost done with a pre-university education, you can conclude that this person is probably looking for their next step.
Educational institutions are generally not very active in advertising. I therefore expect that the campaign budget for ads on Facebook is mostly reserved for events such as open days, if there is any budget at all. In short: in the run-up to open days, there is only one reason for an educational institution to have a Facebook pixel active at all.
What data does an educational institution give to Facebook?
The information that Facebook needs to advertise to you on Facebook is, of course, also available to Facebook. So, Facebook knows through the pixel which websites their users visit as well (if the pixel is active).
Contrary to, for example insurers, websites of educational institutions do not really have privacy-sensitive information. In the example described above, Facebook only knows in which study programs you are interested in.
Which universities have a Facebook pixel active on their website?
There is a tool (a Chrome Plugin) available that lets you see if a website has activated a Facebook pixel. I have visited the websites of all of the Dutch universities (according to VSNU). I found that the following websites have one or more active Facebook pixels: University of Amsterdam (homepage), VU University Amsterdam (homepage), Eindhoven University of Technology (homepage), University of Twente (online open days page), Erasmus University (homepage), Leiden University (homepage), Wageningen University & Research (Education & Training page), Open Universiteit (homepage) and the University for Humanistics (homepage).
The Theological University Apeldoorn, TU Delft, Maastricht University, University of Groningen, Radboud University, Utrecht University, Theologische Universiteit Kampen and Protestant Theological University do not (at the time of writing) have a Facebook pixel.
Delete that pixel?
If is it not currently adding any value, there is really no reason to keep the pixel active. As an educational institution, you are only providing Facebook with extra information about your visitors. If there is a campaign that is relevant to your educational institution, around an open day for example, it is explainable and also defensible to have a pixel active.
I have also received questions about the General Data Protection Regulation in combination with marketing / communication and webcare at educational institutions. I am working on a blog about that.