"Facebook ads don't work". You'll hear this criticism pretty regularly in social media circles. "Facebook's stealing our reach and forcing us to pay for ads", "Facebook paid ads don't deliver great results". I read these criticisms and I find it a little surprising. Well, not surprising - everyone's inevitably going to see different results, some people are going to see great ad performance and some not so much, and that applies to any network. And while I don't doubt that some are seeing poor ad results through Facebook, in general, my internal response to this is criticism is "you're probably not doing it right".
Why would I think that? Because Facebook is arguably the most advanced advertising platform ever created. Over time, Facebook's been able to construct intricate profiles of who we are, what we like, what we do - pretty much everything about us can be gleaned from our Facebook activities. This was essentially proven in a joint University of Cambridge/Stanford University study which showed that your Facebook 'Like' profile could more accurately predict your psychological leanings better than your friends, your family, even your partner. With that level of possible insight into each one of its 1.55 billion users worldwide, surely Facebook ads, when used well, can reach the right audiences. Surely, when that data is utilized in conjuction with research of your ideal buyer personas, you can use the platform reach the most highly targeted and interested groups. Right?
So with that being the case, why do Facebook ads fail? Why do certain brands see poor results from their on-platform efforts? I decided to conduct some research over the past few months and you know what I found? That targeting potential, those intricate audience reach possibilities and insights, they're largely not being used by brands advertising on Facebook. Here's how I know:
For every Facebook ad you're served, each time a sponsored post shows up in your News Feed, there's a background logic at work which determines why you've see it. And you can check it out - you click on the 'X' in the top right corner of the ad, you select 'Why am I seeing this?' and you'll get this screen (above), an explanation as to why you've been targeted with this particular ad. Sometimes the explanation will be entirely logical - I'm a fan of basketball so I'll sometimes get 'people who are interested in basketball' as an ad targeting option, which makes sense. But other times - in fact, in the vast majority of cases I investigated (70%), the ad targeting I'm seeing is like the above. Very little refinement, very wide range.
For reference, 'People aged 25 to 44 in Australia' is a total potential audience of 6.4 million - so it's a very broad range, something Facebook does try to warn you about in the ad process.
If this advertiser were to see poor results from Facebook ads, I wouldn't be surprised - and as noted, the vast majority of ads I see use this type of vague audience targeting, targeting. It's possible that this is a legacy of past ad targeting options - for example, in traditional advertising, you'd be working with wide demographic brackets, something like 'people aged 25 to 44' who read this magazine or watch this TV show. Traditionally, these have been the targeting options on offer, and it may be that many brands just haven't yet switched out of this mode and realized the possibilities of advanced targeting. Maybe, though that's also fairly presumptuous - all I can say, for sure, is that the majority the ads being served to me and the various other profiles I had access to over the last few months are not using any advanced targeting - they're all broad, vague, and no doubt significantly less effective as a result.
But not all of them were targeted like this. The ads that reached me that were of most relevance, based on my interests and activities, either came from social media companies (who you'd expect would have a fair idea of how to use advanced targeting):
Or from Facebook Ad Exchange partners:
These ads tended to be more in tune with my interests and actions - some of those through the Ad Exchange partners, in particular, were highly targeted. The takeaway from this is brands need to learn about Facebook ad targeting. Or work with an ad company that can help. While I don't have statistics on the ad effectiveness through partner companies versus going it alone, it'd be safe to assume, based on these results, that those campaigns would be producing better results.
Facebook ads can be targeted down to most minute of interests and behaviors, the most intricate audience matches can be used to reach highly relevant audiences with your paid campaigns. Lookalike audiences (which Hootsuite have used in the above example) are one way to go - they examine your existing customer e-mail lists and find similar people, based on their Facebook details - that's one way to ensure you're reaching more relevant audiences. But on top of that, profiling your own Facebook community, researching the communities of your competitors, examining the commonalities and correlations that exist between your customers - this can lead to more targeted, and more effective, Facebook ads because you're reaching people based on what they're interested in, not on vague outlines of who they are.
But, of course, this is just my research - this is not a wide-scale study. As such, I sought to reiterate my findings by asking a Facebook marketing expert for her thoughts on the matter. That expert, Mari Smith, provided the below response.
"I agree with you on the poor ad targeting. However, I'd like to add further thoughts about visuals and landing pages," Smith said.
"Marketers seem to forget the environment in which their ads are being seen. Ad visuals and copy must be highly creative to stand out in-between Facebook friends' photos of cats, babies, travel, vacations and food," Smith told me. "Ads that look and feel salesey and hypey do not perform as well as ads that are friendly, relationship oriented, and more informal. On Facebook's Q4 2014 earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg stated that the company's goal is to reach a point where the ads are "as relevant and timely as the content your friends share with you."
"You should split test images first to find a winner, then hone your copy keeping in mind that less is more. Mobile app advertising agency, Consumer Acquisition, tested 100,000 Facebook ads and recommend that you don't rely on stock imagery. Rather, take your own photographs, if possible. Use images of regular, everyday happy women or children, depending on your industry and offer," Smith said.
"Another reason for Facebook ad failure is the ad and landing page are incongruent. This is called "Frame of Mind Marketing." When a user clicks on an ad, they have an expectation of what they're about to see. If the web page doesn't connect with the ad in terms of visuals, ad copy, offer and simplicity, the user will quickly click off."
That's three paragraphs of absolutely golden advice from one of the best in the business - if you want to improve the results of your Facebook ad efforts, this serves as a perfect blueprint from which to work from.
Facebook ad targeting is powerful. Yes, Facebook has reduced organic reach, effectively forcing a 'pay-to-play' model, yes, the situation has changed and your tactics need to change with it. But I urge you to consider Facebook's advanced targeting options and potential if you're looking to advertise on The Social Network or if you're wondering why you're not seeing results. That, in conjunction with these simple yet effective notes from Mari Smith, will likely lead to a significant boost in your Facebook ad performance.
Main image via rvlsoft / Shutterstock