How to tell a social media post is an ad

Being able to identify an ad on social media helps us to understand where the posts on our feed are coming from

Written by spunout


Social media posts and social media ads may seem like the same thing to many of us.  However, knowing the difference can help us to decide whether or not we trust what we’re seeing online, or at least have a better understanding of where the things on our social media feeds are coming from.

What are social media posts?

A social media post is the content that is posted onto a profile or page on a social networking site such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. This includes the things that you or your friends share on social media, like a picture on Instagram, a status update on Facebook, or a snap on Snapchat.

Businesses and organisations also create social media posts for their pages. These posts will be shown to you when you visit their profile or will show up in your own feed if you have followed them. In marketing terms, this is an ‘organic’ post, which means it reaches an audience without any money behind it.

What are social media ads?

Social media ads are posts that a company has paid to show to a larger number of people. This can include ads that you see on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.

This is why you might sometimes see a post on Instagram or Facebook from an account you don’t follow. Usually, the ad will appear as ‘sponsored’ on your feed, and sometimes extra buttons will be added to the post, like ‘see more’ or ‘learn more’. This is usually seen on Facebook and Instagram ads. Looking out for these terms can help you to identify whether or not you’re looking at a paid post or an organic post.

Influencer ads

Sometimes, bloggers or influencers might post ads on their social media feeds. These kinds of ads might look like a normal ‘organic’ post, but they have actually been paid to share it, or they have received something for free in exchange for posting about it. Under the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI) guidelines, they must clearly say in their post that they have been paid – but this doesn’t always happen. Learn more about influencers here.

How do they decide who sees the ad?

People creating social media ads use something called ‘demographic targeting’ to decide who will see their ad. This means they can choose the location, age range, gender, and even interests of the person to show the ad to.

For example, an ad for a sporting goods company might target their posts at both males and females age 18-24 living in Cork, with an interest in running, cycling, swimming, football, and rugby.

Other kinds of targeting

Demographic targeting is just one of the ways that advertisers decide who will see their ad. They can also look at things like the type of phone you have, the language your phone is set to, and even if you’re using WiFi or data.

The pages you follow, the things you search for, and the websites you visit help to determine what your interests are. Your internet history also helps the system to predict your age and gender if they are not already provided on the social networking site that you use. If you say where you live on your profile, or if you have not turned off location sharing on your device (it is often switched on by default), the website can determine where you are.

This is why it’s important to regularly check your privacy settings on your devices and social media sites to ensure that you’re only sharing the information that you want to share.

How come I keep seeing the same ad?

Some pages use something called ‘retargeting’, which means they can track whether or not you have shown any interest in their business or product. If you have ever visited a website once and then keep seeing their ads everywhere you go for the next week, that is because they are retargeting you to try and get you to come back to their website.

How can I stop seeing certain ads?

It is possible to let social media sites know what type of ads you are interested in, and if you’re repeatedly seeing an ad for something that is irrelevant to you – for example, ads for a football website when you don’t watch football – then you can remove yourself from that interest group. To do this, go into your settings and look for ‘Ads’ or ‘Ad Preferences’.

You can also let the site know that you don’t like the ad by hiding it from your feed, or reporting it if you think it’s inappropriate or if you don’t trust the source behind the ad.

Are social media ads a bad thing?

There is not necessarily anything wrong with a social media ad. Whoever has paid for it simply wants more people to see what it is that they’re promoting, and it can help people find the products they need or a website that they’re interested in. Many people in the digital marketing business would argue that their targeting methods can help to make sure you’re only seeing ads that you’re interested in, rather than ads that are completely irrelevant to you.

However, if you have seen an ad, it’s worth taking time to think about how it ended up in front of you, and also consider why they want to you to see it. What information have you shared about yourself that led to this ad appearing on your feed? Are they trying to sell you a product, or is it politically motivated? What do you know about the page behind the ad, and can you trust them?

Asking yourself these questions can help you to better understand the things that appear on your social media feeds every day, and can help you to make better decisions about the things that you do around the ads that you see.

The ads we see on our feeds are not always from brands or organisations we know and trust. Anyone can create a business profile on social media and start creating ads. Always pay attention to who is behind the ad and look for more information on the organisation. If you don’t trust it, report it to the social media site.

For more information on online safety and to view factsheets for all of the most popular social media sites, visit the Online Safety Hub.

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