The Wild West of Social Advertising: Separating False Promises from Real Opportunities

Every time I open up my Facebook app for personal browsing (because I can’t get enough of dog pictures, BuzzFeed articles, and watching the train wreck that is people arguing over politics), I get bombarded with the same advertisements. If you work in digital marketing, you probably do too – my feed sometimes feels littered with false promises that distract from the real opportunities presented by social advertising.

I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about: the ads that always start with a guy pulling up to his sun-soaked mansion in his brand-new luxury car. He’s telling you some inspirational story about how he was tired of working for “the man” and wanted to take control of his life. He was able to do so via Facebook ads and he wants to share that same knowledge with you. All you have to do is click the link below, give him your info, sign up for and attend his webinar, and then pay him a fee to set up weekly calls to help you reach your dreams! (Side note: it’s always a dude, which is super frustrating) The message is clear: Facebook is easy, anyone can do it, and he’s going to show you. You don’t need years of practice, or even a background in digital. To hell with that! You just need to listen and replicate what they do.

There’s just one problem. That’s not how Facebook works. That’s not how Paid Social works. I hate to be the bearer of obvious news, but there isn’t a silver bullet that’s going to magically turn your campaigns into a money-making machine.

Comparing Search and Social: Established Methods vs. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Like many people in the industry, I came to social – my current line of work – from search. There are a lot of similarities between search and social, which is why so many people cross over and do both. However, just because they are similar, doesn’t mean they are the same – or even close to being the same.

Search behaves in fairly predictable ways. You can find the answer to just about any question by performing a quick search on your preferred engine (I’m search engine agnostic, no playing favorites here), or by going to Twitter and posing a question to one of the dozens of experts who offer free advice and help. It’s sort of comforting that there’s a formula you can typically follow: if this doesn’t work, do that. If that doesn’t work, do this other thing. A+B almost always equals C.

Please, please, please, don’t hear what I’m not saying. Search is not by any means easy. It takes years and years to become an expert. Every year I spend in the industry, I realize how much more there is to know and learn about search. I do mean, though, that if you’re dealing with a search-related challenge, you can usually find the answer to your problem – or at the very least, find someone out there who has gone before you and can help guide you through.

Social doesn’t work that way. It’s not packaged that neatly. During a podcast we did together, my good friend JD Prater over at AdStage referred to Social as the Wild Wild West, and he’s absolutely right. We’re all just out here trying to make it and figure out what works (and what doesn’t) without a lot of reliable precedents to fall back on.

Finding Social Solutions to Social Advertising Problems

The good news is that unlike the actual Wild West – where I’m pretty sure life was cheap and cooperation was a rarity – people who work in Social come together to solve problems and learn from them. I’m pretty heavily involved in the growing Facebook Ads community, primarily through Twitter and the tweet chat #FBadschat, as well as the Facebook group, FB Ads Betterment Society. Often, I see questions come in that have no clear-cut answer, but that manage to start great cooperative problem-solving sessions. Someone asks a question, someone responds by tagging the person they may think knows the answer, and then that person says “Hey, that’s a great question. Let’s find out together!”

Outside of the community, Facebook itself can be very hard to get answers from. You may or may not have an account rep at Facebook (the process of getting one is basically a black box and I have no clue how they determine who gets a rep and who doesn’t). Their support articles are often outdated. Seriously: if you do Facebook ads, go search on the support site for an issue you’re currently dealing with – any issue. Chances are, you’re going to wind up with a question someone asked two years ago. The platform isn’t the same as it was when the question was asked, so it’s just not helpful for many current issues people encounter.

Facebook Ads Can Have a Mind of Their Own

Even if you have a rep, they may not be giving you advice that helps. I’m serious! Here’s an example: I have a client right now who is running an ad that goes against everything that Facebook would deem as best practice. The ad isn’t bright and colorful; it’s actually shades of blue (similar to Facebook blue). It has got text in a text box overlaid on the main image (Facebook recommends that less than 20% of the ad have text on it). According to standards, it’s all bad. If a Facebook rep were to look at this ad, they would undoubtedly tell me that it’s a poor ad and we should swap it out with something better.

Guess what? It’s one of the client’s top-performing ads, for nearly six months now. We’ve tried numerous times to introduce a better ad that checks all the best practice boxes so that we can retire this ad once and for all. But we can’t, because it. Just. Keeps. Winning. This little ad is wrong in all the right ways, and there’s no arguing with its performance.

Let me give you another example. Traditional wisdom tells us that a winning Social strategy starts with funnels: working your prospects through a sales cycle that warms them up to whatever you’re selling. It’s a parallel of what happens in real life – you don’t walk up to someone at a bar and say “Hey! I’d like to marry you.” You ask them their name and if they’d like to have a drink. Then if that goes well, maybe you meet up for coffee or dinner, then go through more stages of commitment before popping the big question.

Translated to social, this concept of progressive interactions means you don’t just throw conversion ads at your cold audiences with a desperate cry of “BUY MY PRODUCT PUHLEASE!” You start by warming them up. Then you show them how you add value. Then you ask for the sale. This is a foundational piece of advertising wisdom, hallowed throughout the ages for being a process that works.

Until it doesn’t. I’m working on account right now where we can throw conversion ads at cold audiences – and this counterintuitive strategy just continues to work and outperform itself. It’s madness.

Try It, Test It, and Don’t Be Afraid to Break Rules

So what does this mean? How does it all relate? Here’s how I see it: social advertising is all about testing. You know the saying “What’s true for you isn’t true for me”? In social, that’s one hundred percent the case. Just because something worked for you, doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for me. And, conversely, just because it didn’t work for you (or for generations of advertisers before) doesn’t mean that it won’t work for me. You never know until you try.

Throw best practice out the window. Throw your preconceived notions of what you think is going to happen away. Come with an open mind. Be ready to learn. Be ready to push past your comfort zone. Try new things. For the love of all that is good, test. TEST. TEST. TEST! We have to remember, Facebook is about audiences. It’s about the people. People are different. No two people are exactly the same, so why would every Facebook strategy be the same?

If you’re looking for a silver bullet – a ten step plan to put into place that’s going to increase your efficiency by a million percent and let you stop “working for the man” like the mansion-dwelling guy in the ubiquitous Facebook ads promises – then I can’t help you.

If you’re looking for someone who’s going to be honest with you about what is working and what isn’t, someone who’s going to make decisions based on data and people, we should talk. The opportunities presented by social advertising are real – they just take a little digging and out-of-the-box thinking to find.

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Point It helped the Microsoft Store achieve a return on advertising spend (ROAS) of over 600%. Read all about it in the case study “Exceeding Revenue Goals with Social Advertising.

Matt Mason About the author

Matt Mason is a lifelong learner and digital marketing enthusiast. Matt’s favorite thing about marketing is getting outstanding results for his client and keeping up with the fast-moving current of technology and technique. He is currently a Senior Client Manager at Point It. Matt is focusing on building a deep knowledge about all thing digital and brings a fresh perspective to paid search. Born and raised in the 636 (Saint Louis), Matt is a lover of good food and music. In his free time, you can find him banging on the drums or crushing rock walls around Seattle

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