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This week saw the release of a controversial report from Forrester, claiming that ‘Facebook is failing marketers’. In an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, analyst Nate Elliot asked why Facebook ads were delivering so little return for many advertisers.
Could it be because most advertisers on Facebook don’t know what they’re doing?
Before I get into this, I want to point out that I’ve seen plenty of excellent marketing and effective advertising on Facebook.
I’m not tarring everyone with the same ‘why your content isn’t working’ brush, not least because I hate articles like that. Instead, I’d like to suggest that in many cases businesses take a fundamentally incorrect approach to Facebook, one based on returns from older types of advertising that simply aren’t as relevant here.
Secondly, I do think there are several areas Facebook could improve on, and I’ll run through those in a moment, but frankly it feels as though Elliot is setting up a straw man argument.
Ads don't engage people, people do
First off the bat, Elliot makes a valuable point about what marketers really want from Facebook - engagement:
[Facebook] focuses too little on the thing marketers want most: driving genuine engagement between companies and their customers. Your sales materials tease marketers with the promise that you’ll help them create such connections. But in reality, you rarely do. Everyone who clicks the like button on a brand’s Facebook page volunteers to receive that brand’s messages — but on average, you only show each brand’s posts to 16% of its fans.
Let’s break that statement down a little for clarity.
Firstly, this is all well and good, but let’s not forget that we’re talking about ad results here, NOT engagement rates.
We don’t, on the whole, expect engagement from banner ads, and neither should we from regular sidebar ads on Facebook.
Promoted content is a different story, and there’s a reason it often comes out tops when it comes to generating engagement. The content we promote in-stream is fundamentally different from sidebar ads. It very rarely sells directly, and usually looks to garner comments, 'likes' and shares rather than pushing the user into a purchase decision or to an external site.
In many ways this type of engagement can be seen as a vanity metric. There are certainly uses for large audiences and higher response rates are at least an indicator of how well received your content is, but there are surprisingly few hard metrics that can accurately be applied here.
My own opinion is that this is due to two common misconceptions. Firstly, that we should somehow be applying more rigorous analytic measurement to social PR than we would to ‘regular’ PR, simply because it takes place in an online environment, and secondly, that there is some sort of standard value to the ‘like’.
There isn’t. Each 'like' is a beautiful, individual snowflake, just like the user behind it (unless it’s a bot 'like', in which case it’s an ugly, malformed piece of hateful pig iron).
When it comes to generating engagement, it’s all on the advertiser, not the platform.
Simply shouting at a customer isn’t any good. Displaying boring or unhelpful content doesn’t work either. You either engage your users or you don’t, and whether that’s done through paid ads or organic content simply doesn’t matter. It requires a sustained human touch to interact with the audience.
Finally, showing a brand’s posts to an average of 16% of fans is, again, down to a very common misconception about social media platforms that fuels unrealistic expectations. I’ve written about this in the past, but here’s a short recap.
- You have a page with 1,000 fans. 500 in London, 500 in Durango (because why not – let’s say you sell taco jellied eels).
- You post some content at 10am GMT.
- The 500 users in Mexico were asleep so didn’t see it. Before they woke up another 500 companies they liked also posted, so your post was buried further down their news feed.
- Meanwhile 300 of the London users were out sweeping chimneys and playing shove ha’penny, and 100 were watching TV, and 15 had popped to the loo…
That’s why they didn’t all see your content.
If you like, you can pay Facebook some money and they’ll stick that content in those user’s news feeds when they are definitely looking at Facebook. This still won’t account for their sister getting married and the pictures of that being infinitely more interesting to the user than your new burrito and mash combo.
You can see where this is going. To level accusations of being un-engaging at Facebook is ridiculous.
Facebook needs better targeting
Elliot does offer up some salient points in his letter, pointing out that Facebook’s ads aren’t nearly as good as they should be.
I’m inclined to agree, but in fairness there are arguments for and against this. In the main, the targeting on Facebook is… not all that it should be.
Partly this is because of a focus on consumer products (I can tell you from personal experience that many of Facebook’s ad units perform very poorly for Econsultancy), and partly it’s because of that mis-selling of ‘likes’.
As businesses have sought them out, so Facebook has encouraged users to ‘like’ more and more things. Read a good book? Watched TV? Played a game? Bought a hat? All these things and more are 'like' worthy, and allow Facebook to build a more comprehensive view of the user but at the cost of diluted relevance.
I ‘like’ online marketing. And I ‘like’ KISS. Which of these is more valuable to an advertiser?
Again, context looms large. It depends what mood I’m in. Maybe I need a new analytics system for my social posts. I do carry out social media analysis all day, every day after all. Then again, I also rock n’ roll every night (and part of every day), so neither of these is a surefire hit.
Google manages to be effective because its paid ads are based around active need, whereas Facebook’s exist in a far more passive environment, with far more competition.
Put simply, comparing the two is entirely unfair. A far more effective comparison might be TV ad response vs. Facebook ads, but again, it depends on the product, timing etc.
How cost effective would it really be for Econsultancy to advertise our real-time bidding buyer’s guide on primetime television? The short answer is: it wouldn’t.
Measurement isn't up to scratch
Finally, there’s a question of the maturity of measurement models here.
Looking at the satisfaction chart produced by Forrester, there’s a clear hierarchy of measurement and experience:
At the top we see disciplines like search and email, practices most businesses have been carrying out for the best part of two decades now, and practices that have comparatively straightforward systems of measurement, usually containing a clearly defined CTA.
At the bottom, we enter into the realm of social, where multiple touchpoint attribution and extended, complex funnel models, based on long-term marketing plans are needed, and as we’ve reported in the past the majority of businesses are simply not able to carry out these types of measurement efficiently.
Overall, it’s easy to point to Facebook and declare that it isn’t working, but this is more likely because we are simply asking the wrong questions and have unrealistic expectations.