Facebook ads - useful when used correctly

Bradley Portnoy

Flickr Creative Commons Photo by SchmilBlick

Online advertising is an evolving landscape - and one that will certainly come in for much scrutiny, academic and otherwise. But I was surprised to see the headline of Dylan Matthews' story on Wonkblog - "Why Facebook campaign ads are a sucker's bet."

The post is a summary of an article draft by Prof. David Broockman of Berkeley and Donald Green at Columbia, which purports to show little to no lift of a state legislative candidate's name recognition based on a treatment group exposed to several Facebook ads.

Unfortunately, Broockman and Green seem to misunderstand the Facebook platform and how advertisements both function technically and can be most effectively used.

The first hint of trouble comes when they state that users appear to have seen the ads they ran "on every Facebook page all week" (emphasis theirs). While they do later establish that the campaign was unable to spend its $150 daily budget despite their high CPM (cost-per-thousand-impressions) bid, they attribute this to having exhausted Facebook's inventory for their targeted users.

Facebook — which is self-interested in creating a product that people will come back to — will show ads to users online a limited number of times in a given period. This is a variation on the Facebook EdgeRank algorithm that selects the posts you see in your Newsfeed. Thus, while the campaign was unable to exhaust its budget, it cannot be assumed that this is because Facebook exhausted its inventory.

This is where the candidate's advertising strategy comes in. The authors state that their click rate of 0.1% was "encouragingly low… as we are primarily interested in the impact of exposure to the candidates' name and message in the ad listing itself." Facebook Marketplace ads, with a 25 character title, and a 90 character body, a 100x72 pixel image, are to say the least not ideal message delivery vehicles.

Instead, their power is in their ability to create a lasting relationship between advertiser and user — typically through a user clicking the "like" button and consequently receiving messaging from a candidate or other advertiser in the future. By ignoring this most fundamental aspect of Facebook advertising strategy, the authors discredit their results.

It is as if they have concluded that there is no brand lift from television advertisements that people see in a crowded bar out of the corner of their eye. Of course there isn't — because that is not how people experience the medium, and the best ads are not calibrated for corner-of-the-eye viewing.

Moreover, the ad units purchased are the most basic on Facebook. In our work, we have found these to be ineffective. However, we have found great success at using newer ad units such as "Like" ads and Sponsored Stories, which encourage both current and potential fans to interact with page content. Recently, Facebook has allowed ads to be placed directly into Newsfeed, and we have seen even better results with these ads.

Those TVs in the bar? Turns out they were 15" black and white boxes, not today's 52" flat screens.

What lessons can we take from this? Certainly not that all Facebook ads are ineffective. The lesson here is that an advertising strategy cannot exist in a vacuum. At Powell Tate, we run ads only when we know that we have great content to promote, whether it's a video, an image or an interactive experience. At the same time, we don't put out content without an ad strategy to promote it.

In today's media landscape, reaching people means drawing on emotion and forming a lasting relationship — not carpet-bombing their periphery with a brief, un-engaging message.

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