How to Build Facebook Custom Audiences for Special Ad Category Groups

  • February 11, 2020
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Are you trying to run ads to people for services that Facebook restricts due to possible discrimination? Have restrictions on audience targeting impacted your ability to reach leads and customers?

In this article, you’ll discover whether your ad belongs in a restricted Special Ad Category, learn what targeting restrictions apply, and find out how to build new target audiences that comply with Facebook’s policies.

How to Build Facebook Custom Audiences for Special Ad Category Groups by Jessica Campos on Social Media Examiner.

#1: Determine Whether Your Facebook and Instagram Ads Belong in a Special Ad Category

Facebook has been making changes to the way the platform manages housing, employment, and credit ads and has limited audience criteria available for such campaigns. If you’re having trouble getting your Facebook ads approved or your active campaign stopped running for compliance reasons, there’s a good chance your ad has been flagged as “special ad category.”

Facebook Special Ad Category check box in Ads Manager

Facebook’s efforts to remove ad targeting options for housing, employment, and credit advertisers are the result of a settlement the company reached with civil rights groups that charged Facebook with allowing discriminatory ads on the platform. By the end of last year, Facebook started to implement the Special Ad Category restrictions to the following types of businesses located in the U.S. or targeting users in the U.S.:

Housing opportunity or related service: Ads that promote or directly link to a housing opportunity or related service, including but not limited to listings for the sale or rental of a home or apartment, homeowner’s insurance, mortgage insurance, mortgage loans, housing repairs, and home equity or appraisal services.

This doesn’t include ads designed to educate consumers or housing providers about their rights and responsibilities under fair housing laws. You can include the Equal Opportunity Housing logo and slogan to help differentiate your ads as non-discriminatory.

Credit opportunity: Ads that promote or directly link to a credit opportunity, including but not limited to credit card offers, auto loans, personal or business loan services, mortgage loans, and long-term financing. This also includes brand ads for credit cards, regardless of a specific offer.

Employment opportunity: Ads that promote or directly link to an employment opportunity, including but not limited to part- or full-time jobs, internships, or professional certification programs. Related ads that fall within this category include promotions for job boards or fairs, aggregation services, or ads detailing perks a company may provide, regardless of a specific job offer.

Note: Developers using Marketing API v5.0 or above will see the option NONE under the Special Ad Category feature.

Pro Tip: Similar to LinkedIn, Facebook has announced that they’ll continue using human reviewers and machine learning to identify these kinds of ads. If you forget to check the Special Ad Category box, there’s a risk your ads will be paused until the campaign is adjusted. After you select one of the special ad categories listed, certain targeting restrictions will be enforced.

Here’s what you need to know about running ads if your business is within a special ad category as designated by Facebook.

#2: Understand Restrictions to Facebook Audience and Targeting for Ads in a Special Ad Category

Certain targeting options aren’t available for ads in special categories. In the words of Facebook, “we encourage you to broaden—not restrict—your audience. Our targeting options, like all audience selection tools on Facebook, must be used in ways that are inclusive and not discriminatory.”

Your option to disclose if your ad belongs to a special ad category will show up at the campaign level when you create a new ad in Ads Manager. Before selecting your objective, you need to confirm that your ad belongs to one of the special ad categories.

Facebook Special Ad Category options in Ad Category drop-down menu

The platform guides you on the options; however, remember that Facebook has humans approving your ads so if your content might seem like it belongs to a special ad category, Facebook might reject your ad.

Facebook Saved Audiences Restrictions for a Special Ad Category

If your ad falls under a special ad category, you’ll be unable to use your saved audiences.

pop-up message about using saved audiences in Special Ad Category ad campaign

In the Audiences section, click Create New and select Special Ad Audience to select your audience target location.


Your target selection will be limited to source, location, and audience size.

Special Ad Category Audience option in Create New drop-down menu during Facebook campaign setup

Note: You’ll only be able to reach people who have engaged with your data source. This means that you no longer can narrow your audience based on interests, pages liked, or other digital behavior. If you were used to boosting your posts, that will be the way to do it if your ad is under the special ad category.

Custom Audiences Restrictions for a Special Ad Category

To reach new people via Facebook ad sets, you can use the Custom Audience feature. Just note that these features are limited to your own data sources such as:

  • Website traffic
  • App activity
  • Customer list
  • Offline activity
  • Engagement from videos
  • Users who have completed your lead form
  • Users who have engaged with your Instagram business profile
  • Users who have engaged with events
  • Facebook page users

Create a Custom Audience window source options

When you create a new custom audience with the Special Ad Audience option, you can also create a lookalike audience but it will be prepared with the new algorithm restrictions. You’ll no longer see it as a “lookalike audience.” It shows as “Special Ad Audience” under your custom audiences.

special ad audience in Audience section of Facebook campaign setup

Location, Age, and Gender Targeting Restrictions for a Special Ad Category

In the past, you were able to target a location by zip code to maximize your ad budget. This option was excellent for realtors, builders, and developers to offer their housing opportunities to a very defined audience. These options are no longer available.

Facebook is no longer using certain categories for targeting including age, gender, zip code, or similar categories.

Age, Gender, and Detailed Targeting settings for Special Ad Category campaigns

Here’s a rundown of these changes:

  • Location: You can target your ads to people by geographic location (such as country, region, state, province, city, or congressional district) but not by zip code. If you select specific locations, Facebook will include a 15-mile radius around that targeted city, address, or pin-drop.
  • Age: You can’t change this setting. Audiences must include people between the ages of 18 and 65+.
  • Gender: You can’t change this setting. Audiences must include all genders.
  • Detailed Targeting: Some demographic, behavior, and interest options are unavailable. The ability to exclude any detailed targeting selections is also unavailable.

Note for marketers: Broad targeting is the way! When you’re targeting broadly, you’re mostly relying on Facebook’s delivery system to find the best people to show your ad to. You’ll be able to narrow your targeting but only via custom audience features, which are based on the data that you already own.

#3: Build Acceptable Custom Targeting Audiences for Special Ad Categories

Despite the targeting restrictions with special ad categories, you can still attract people who are more likely to be interested and buy, especially using content marketing. Take the time to prepare content that your audience will be interested in and find valuable. This will ignite conversations and shares, which will help with future audience targeting.

Here are three custom audiences you can begin building today.

Create Website Custom Audiences

With special ad categories, you can still target people who visit your website. If you want to narrow your audience to target specific users, set up a custom audience based on specific website page visitors.

If you’re in real estate and want to target future buyers from a particular city, for instance, write a comprehensive article about the city and reasons to invest in real estate. Focus on getting traffic to this particular web page so you can use Facebook audience features to market using ads, getting the data from your website visitors.

Set Up Engagement Custom Audiences for Facebook

Because you can no longer use a previously saved audience with special ad categories, you need to set up your audience source. Don’t wait until you launch your campaign to do this.

Spend some time nurturing your audience using native Facebook features like events, videos, and post engagement. If you’re in real estate and want to announce a new property, use the Facebook Events feature and market to your audience so Facebook can gather some intelligence. Then by the time you launch your ads, you’ll have the source data to create your audience.

Here are the engagement types available, broken down by engagement custom audience type:

  • Video
  • Lead form
  • Canvas / collection
  • Facebook page
  • Instagram business profile
  • Event

Keep in mind that engagement custom audiences are different from website custom audiences. Engagement custom audiences use actions taken on Facebook’s family of apps and services, whereas website custom audiences use actions taken on your website that are tracked by the Facebook pixel (otherwise known as “events”).

When you create an engagement custom audience, you tell Facebook how many days you want them to go back when collecting engagement. This means that if you tell Facebook to look back 30 days and someone engaged 29 days ago, that person will be in your audience. However, if they fail to engage the next day, they’ll then be removed from it.

Anyone new who engages within the time period you choose will be added to the audience. This means that the audience is constantly being refreshed so you don’t need to edit or create a new engagement custom audience unless you want to change the time period or the type of engagement.

I recommend extending the engagement period to at least 60 days to make sure you’re marketing to people who actually want to hear from you.

Set Up Engagement Custom Audiences for Instagram

Instagram is ranked second behind Facebook for traditional social networks in terms of active users so don’t overlook it. To target your audience on Instagram, create a custom audience based on people who have engaged with your Instagram business profile or watched one of your videos on Instagram.

Note: You need to connect your Instagram business profile, not your personal account.

Facebook provides a range of engagement options to choose from when creating your custom audience for Instagram:

  • Everyone who engaged with your Instagram profile (this includes visiting your profile or engaging with your content or ads)
  • Only people who visited your Instagram profile
  • Only people who engaged with your Instagram content or ads
  • People who sent a message to your Instagram business profile
  • People who saved any of your Instagram posts or ads

setup window for Instagram business profile engagement custom audience

After you choose whom you want to include in your audience, select a time frame. In other words, tell Facebook how far back you want them to look for people who performed the action you chose. As with Facebook page engagement audiences, you can choose up to 365 days.

Pro Tip: You can even add a second Instagram account. So if you own multiple Instagram business accounts, you can combine them into one big Facebook custom audience and retarget the audiences of both accounts in the same ad set.


When I first saw Special Ad Categories pop up in our account in October 2019, I edited my existing ad and immediately got disapproved. Our campaign stopped running for no discernible reason. We used the appeal process with no luck. When we contacted Facebook directly, we found out our ads were flagged because they were in the special ad category of housing and we were using features that were no longer available.

On a side note, our ad wasn’t related to housing but it took us several steps to get it approved. So even if you’re not in any of the special ad category industries, you might stumble upon this flag if Facebook winds up saying you’re targeting any of the restricted categories.

Now that your ads no longer have interest targeting features, saved audiences, or former lookalike audiences, set up the audiences combining the different sources that Facebook has to offer:

graphic showing special ad category custom audiences to create for Facebook and Instagram campaigns

What do you think? Is your business in a special ad category? How has this change impacted your targeting strategy? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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