Facebook ads: Heartbreakingly close to useful

A few weeks ago, I set myself the task of learning how to use Facebook ads. I poked around on the Facebook site, which seemed remarkably unhelpful. The main advice there is, “Create an ad and see how it works.” I downloaded a bunch of different e-books and listened to couple of webinars. As a whole, they were helpful about where and how to use Facebook advertising in one’s marketing mix, but they weren’t very specific about the process of creating and then targeting the actual ad-lets.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so crazy as to think that, if I am selling phone apps for prices ranging from free to $3.99, I can use either Facebook or Google advertising as a primary way to drive sales. But I do buy the advice I’ve read in a couple of places, that while you are waiting for your SEO and blogging efforts to ramp up and pay off, it can be useful to use either Facebook or Google advertising as a way to validate target markets and/or marketing messages. It is relatively easy to split-test images and messages and very easy to turn individual ads and campaigns on and off.  I don’t have time to make 100 phone calls to do my own market research.  I can afford to spend $100 to see if I’m striking a nerve, or not, online.

For example, I am working on a set of phone apps targeted at Registered Nurses. So far I’ve been getting very little traction from, on the one hand, just having my products in the Android and iPhone marketplaces or, on the other hand, the blogging I’ve been doing on phone-related technology issues for, NurseTogether, an online nursing community. I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that I should narrow my target market, for now, to new nurses, rather than the general population of 3 million Registered Nurses in the United States. “New nurses” (not all of whom are ‘young nurses’ — it is a very popular second career) are probably somewhat more likely to have smartphones and are certainly more likely to be actively looking for new tools.

I wanted some way to try to validate that approach, even if only to the extent of getting a feel for the size for that much narrower market segment. So, in the end, I took Facebook’s advice, jumped in with both feet, created one ad campaign and a total of three ads. I am now about $150 poorer but, maybe, a little bit wiser.

What I can report is:

  • The process of creating an ad really is pretty easy.  The limited copy space and overall size mean not much writing agony to go through, and, heck, Facebook even generated a set of starter ad suggestions based on images and text it scraped from the website landing URL I specified — how cool is that? and
  • The “precise interest” targeting on Facebook is almost but not quite the best thing since sliced bread. Sadly, I have to say that it is only heartbreakingly-close to being useful, but not really ready for primetime yet.

Here’s the Facebook help text for the ‘Precise Interest’ targeting box (italics mine):

Precise Interest targeting lets you define your ideal audience in detail, using terms people have included in their Facebook profiles. These terms may be drawn from their interests, activities, education and job titles, Pages they like or groups to which they belong. Enter some terms that describe your target audience to get started.

First, I took the direct approach. I tried doing a search for groups or pages related to student nurses in general or specific nursing schools. Frankly, Facebook search sucks; but I already knew that, didn’t I? While I did find a group for the National Student Nurses Association with 13,000+ likes, I didn’t have much luck with finding pages for nursing schools.

More important, that Association page didn’t seem like a great target for an ad campaign. Most of the posts on it are from other organizations and businesses targeting student nurses. There didn’t seem to be much engagement with the students themselves.

So, I decided to try to find a proxy for ‘student nurseness’ and, luckily, there’s an obvious one. From my conversations with nurses, the biggest event in their transition from being student nurses to becoming registered nurses is taking the licensing exam known as the NCLEX. It is a national exam that is used by each of the states to qualify registered nurses for licensing. Student nurses dread it. RNs remember it as a rite of passage; some can tell you the exact date they took the exam even 15 or 20 years after the fact.

So, I tried searching for groups or pages related to the NCLEX. I found one great one, the Kaplan NCLEX-Prep page (also 13,000+ likes). Kaplan really seems to be doing a good job of using Facebook to create engagement with their student-nurse potential customers. Kaplan posts frequently, primarily with content that relates to student nurses generally not necessarily to the books and test preparation services Kaplan sells. Student nurses frequently post comments and questions on the wall and someone at Kaplan responds and tries to answer the questions, whether they have anything to do with Kaplan products or not.

Long story short, so far I’ve created three ads, received a couple hundred thousand impressions and just under 200 click-thru’s, and generated not a single sale. That last bit does surprise me a bit although not a lot.  But what is actually more interesting is that the click-thru rates on my three little ads varied from from 0% through .056% (with a cost per click of $0.83) to .093% (with a cost per click of $0.49). My “good” ad has ‘NCLEX’ in the title — which affirms the advice that it is useful to closely associate the text of the ad with the groups you are targeting. On the other hand, it has a rather cartoonish picture of a phone versus the picture of a pleasant, smiling, young nurse in the ad that got zero click-thrus. Needless to say, I’d have to do a ton more testing to really get a feel for what works.  I HAVE proved, to my interim satisfaction, that new nurses will click on ads for new tools/technology.

So why do I describe the precise targeting as close to useful instead of actually useful? Because it is so frustratingly arbitrary and limited. After I had run my Kaplan-targeted ad for a day or two, I wanted to try to find a different proxy for student nurses — the useful half-life for Facebook ads is supposed to be super short. All the books I read said to vary the ad content or the audience every few days. With a bit of Facebook-spelunking, I came across the page for Tafford Uniforms — they sell scrubs. Although Tafford does not map so clearly to student nurses, it does map well to nurses who are looking to buy kit for their professional lives. So I thought I would give them a whirl as a target.

But when I tried to specify Tafford in the precise interest target box, I couldn’t do so. You can only use targets that show up as suggested search terms while you type and, although Tafford has a page, it would not come up as a search term. I actually ended up trying four or five other pages and groups, none of which I could target. Turns out that I just happened to be lucky with the Kaplan target the first time around. As far as I can see, most pages and groups CANNOT  be directly targeted.

I finally got so desperate I sent e-mail to the Facebook ad support group, frankly not expecting much. But, after getting one form reply that pointed me to all the help pages I had already looked at, I actually got an e-mail response from a real person. However the answer I got left me flabbergasted. Here’s the bit that addressed my question. (The rest just recommended, in various ways, that I spend more money advertising.) Again, italics are mine:

Thanks for writing in. The targetable Likes & Interests you see in the list are automatically detected in a user’s profile content, and in the titles of Groups and Pages which they’re connected to. If a term isn’t on the list, it means that it isn’t currently appearing frequently enough for our system to detect it. We’re always working to expand this list and hope to add new terms soon, but don’t have a date for when any specific new targeting options may become available.

How weird is that? I guess I can understand that the original, free-format Likes and Interests might require some analysis or massaging before they are useful as targets. But Groups and Pages? What could be more straightforward than making any specific Group or Page a target?

The only thing I can think of is that Facebook’s loosey-goosey approach to name management actually DOES make the task very much less than straightforward. You can understand why it is compellingly useful for Facebook to let anyone who says he is John Smith to have an account under the name John Smith. But they extended that freedom to Groups and Pages and I rather expect that’s what is making life difficult for them as well as for potential advertisers like me.

Take another example. I have a different line of phone apps that have been getting traction with commercial truck drivers. Now, if I want to target a Facebook ad at drivers, a really great proxy group to use would be one for the Owner-Operator Independent Truckers Association (OOIDA) (15,000 + likes). But that’s NOT available as a target. Sigh. Another candidate would be the Sirus/XM trucker channel Road Dog Trucking. Unfortunately, Sirius/XM hasn’t done a consistent job of making Facebook pages for each of their channels, so there’s no page for the whole channel. On the other hand, there IS a Facebook page for one of that channel’s programs: Freewheelin’ (9500+ likes). Now, Freewheelin’ MAY be available as a target — but only as “FreeWheelin” (note  the lack of the distinctive SarahPalin-esque punctuation mark at the end). So I actually don’t know if I have chosen that page as a target or am targeting a possibly more random group of people who happened to have used the word “freewheelin” somewhere in their profiles. There is simply no way at all to tell from the Ad Creation page. (Yeah, you can “kind of” tell if your number of targeted users goes up by about the same number as the people who like the page but that sure doesn’t satisfy me.)

I really get a sense it is time for Facebook to start exposing the guids or whatever else it is they use to uniquely identify one account/page/group from another. Or, if they don’t want to expose identifiers, they should just add a bit of UI to the add creation process that let’s you go to the page or group you want to target and pick up a token there that you can bring back and drop onto your precise targeting list. Facebook, after all, certainly does know what’s what and who’s who. If they want on-going revenue from niche advertisers, I think they are going to find a way to let us either get at the identifiers directoy or give us confidence they are getting at it accurately on our behalf.

 

 

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