What Everyone Gets Wrong About Facebook Ads

What Everyone Gets Wrong About Facebook Ads

Ecommerce has long had a love-hate relationship with Facebook ads.

The most vivid illustration of this bipolar affair came back in 2012 -- immediately before Facebook’s stock went public -- when two mega-enterprise-level companies dropped two equally mega-enterprise-level bombs.

In the love corner was Zappos who pulled back the curtain on their $10 million ROI producing Facebook ad campaigns:

And on the hate side stood GM, who ironically dropped the same staggering number -- $10 million -- only this time in the opposite direction:

GM Says Facebook Ads Don't Work

Since then, the debate surrounding the business use of Facebook has only intensified.

For instance, just two months ago Jay Baer called striking attention to the inverse relationship between Facebook’s stock value and the “average organic page reach” on the platform:

Image via Convince and Convert

In other words, Facebook itself is banking hard on the rise of its paid features -- both ads and shops -- and “could basically care less how your company’s non-paid, organic efforts suffer as a result.”

What does this mean for your ecommerce Facebook efforts?

One thing: if you want to engage on Facebook the free lunch is over.

The good news is ecommerce’s love-hate relationship with Facebook ads contains a wealth of wisdom. However, today I’m not going to talk about “the right way” to do things. Instead, I want to focus on the most common mistakes marketers make with Facebook advertising: what everybody gets wrong.


Because Warren Buffett put it best:

It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes.

1. The Wrong Ad Network

Not all PPC advertising networks are created equal. As Zappos and GM vividly illustrate, just because someone else is getting results with Facebook ads doesn’t mean you’ll succeed too.

Rather than getting into Facebook advertising because “you’re supposed to,” it’s vital to understand what industries work on Facebook and which ones don't.

To begin, the current state of display advertising, in general, is dismal.

According to Google, the average global click-through rate of all display ads is a mere 0.20%:

When you limit those results to the United States alone, things get even bleaker:

However, don’t let those big-picture numbers rule out Facebook ads. For example, when SmartInsights ran their own tests comparing the three paid options available on Facebook they found considerably higher CTRs:

Image via SmartInsights

What’s the difference between these three options?

The last two are incredibly similar. “Boosting” or “Promoting” a post simply means paying Facebook to prioritize one of your otherwise organic updates based on the targeting option I’ll cover later on. In essence, with both options you pay for raw exposure (impressions) -- i.e., to appear in your selected audience’s regular Facebook stream more often:

Image via Facebook

The first option on the list -- “Power Editor Ad” -- is what we think of more traditionally as Facebook ads. These are specially created display ads that -- as you can see from the data -- perform better than their “promoted” or “boosted” counterparts. That’s because the Power Editor allows you to create far more detailed and custom ads tailored to your business’ goals, audience, and call-to-action:

Image via Facebook

We’ll walk through what to avoid when creating an ad through the Power Editor in the rest of this post. For now, if you want a more detailed look at all the ad types, display methods, and call-to-action options, take a quick look at AdEspresso’s visually driven Beginner’s Guide to Facebook Advertising:

Image via AdEspresso

As it pertains to the wrong network, the foundation question to ask is: “Will my product or service fit Facebook as an advertising channel?”

Thankfully, Salesforce provides cumulative data from a host of geographic locations on what industries perform best on Facebook.

Image via Salesforce

Interestingly the data reveals something counterintuitive about Facebook ads: just because a topic is popular on Facebook doesn’t mean ads related to that topic perform well.

Take gaming for instance. While gaming itself is wildly popular on Facebook as an organic topic, ads associated with that industry only generate a 0.37% average CTR. Telecommunication and retail, on the other hand, while not often thought of as native topics, both clock in at 3.37%.

The only non-surprise is the entertainment industry that performs powerfully on Facebook as both an organic topic of interest and in ads: 3.24%.

What does all this mean for your ad strategy?

Facebook is not the right network for every industry. Instead of jumping in headlong, start by getting clear about your industry's performance on Facebook and set you objective accordingly.

2. The Wrong Ad Target

Next to selecting the wrong network entirely, the second most costly mistake comes down to targeting: who’s your ideal customer?

While saying “the wrong target” might seem to imply aiming at the wrong people -- i.e., this group rather than that group -- this pitfall is far more about targeting too many people.

For Facebook ads, a big target is the wrong target.

This strategy counters conventional wisdom that says: “The more people you reach, the more chances you have to sell something.” That statement couldn’t be further from the truth.

Social media marketing in total has opened up a whole new world when it comes to targeting.

Just consider the relevance of these two ads from Southwest Airlines: one, untargeted and the second, geographically specific:

Getting ultra-specific allows you to get the right message in front of the right people at the right time. Doing this means constantly refining your buyer persona and creating ads that talk specifically to them. Simply put, if you don’t have Facebook specific buyer personas, you’re killing your ads’ chances of surviving.

With Facebook, targeting options are simultaneously wonderful and overwhelming.

Covering the basics -- most notably, location, demographics, interests, and behaviors -- can feel like a full-time job. And that doesn’t even include advanced targeting options like “Lookalike Audiences” or retargeting methods.

Here’s a great visual overview of just how specific you can get:

Image via Shopify

The good news is you don’t have to build an exhaustively targeted buyer persona on Facebook ads to get started.

The lowest hanging Facebook ad fruit comes from aligning your product with the most obvious buyer persona characteristics.

For example, if you sell wedding dresses online then simply targeting “Engaged” women under relationship status is a brilliant start.

You can then get even more specific by not only including your business’ Facebook fans but by also targeting:

  1. the fans of your leading competitors’ pages, 
  2. specific wedding brands (both dresses and other popular products like invitations), and 
  3. other non-ecommerce wedding pages.

Each of these sources will have separate native audiences you can take advantage of, and Facebook Power Editor makes identifying these targets incredibly easy -- all you have to do is enter the name of competitors, brands, and other pages into the “Interests” section of the tool:

Leveraging other brands is particularly powerful in this regard. By targeting popular brand pages and then featuring those brands in your ads themselves, you lean on a customer’s pre-existing recognition and trust as well as anticipate a product-price fit later in the buying process.

William Harris from Dollar Hobbyz, for example, does exactly that. Instead of creating generic ads targeted at a generic audience, Dollar Hobbyz zeros in on both its audience's general interests as well as brands they already follow. This combination regularly earns their ads 9/10 Relevancy Scores from Facebook, which means the ad appears more often, costs less per click, and improves ROI:

Image via Dollar Hobbyz

In addition to targeting the fans of direct competitors and specific brands, you can also target adjacent industries and common products or tools associated with what you sell.

Take the clipping and curation tool memit for instance. The company does a fantastic job on its website explicitly mentioning direct competitors as well as the associated tools its target audience already uses.

Image via memit

Both groups -- highlighted in red -- present ripe opportunities for narrowing down your Facebook targets and serving up relevant ads.

Perhaps the richest targeting feature Facebook ads offers is retargeting.

Essentially, retargeted ads work by adding “Facebook pixels” to specific pages on your website. When someone visits one of those pages, they get tagged by the pixel, and you can then create custom Facebook audiences who will be served up custom ads directly related to the product or service in which they’ve already shown interest.

Image via Retargeter.com

You can see an example of the power of retargeting in this Facebook advertising case study by Andrew Hubbard. By retargeting people at two stages:

  1. those who visited a landing page but didn’t submit their emails address 
  2. those who visited a sales page but didn’t complete the purchase 

They achieved over $10,000 in sales from a $160 budget.

That can sound complicated, but Facebook offers an easy three-step tutorial.

1. Create a Facebook pixel.

2. Create an audience.

3. Create an ad.

    Just remember, when you’re creating your ads themselves, the central idea is still targeted.

    This means going beyond adding one Facebook pixel to your entire website and instead adding Facebook custom events to product description pages or product categories. As William Harris stresses in his case study How I Got 500% ROI from Facebook Ads:

    Make sure the text, image, link and everything else about the ad are as relevant to the audience as possible.

    At the risk of getting too meta, Shopify Plus’ own How to Execute an Effective Ad Retargeting Campaign That Works goes into further detail on effectively targeting your retargeting ads and outlines these three basic campaign types:

    • “Direct Link”: An ad featuring the exact product your target has previously visited and a direct link to the purchase page.
    • “Free Gift”: A free offer ad -- most notably, free shipping -- that complements the main product in which they’ve already shown interest.
    • “Content Advertising”: Promote an ad that highlights a useful article, ebook, webinar, or online course that mentions or builds upon (once again) the product your prospective customer has viewed, but has yet to purchase.

    The first two types are fairly obvious and should be built around specific products or product categories. GlassesUSA actually combines both approaches by offering ads that contain (1) the exact glasses a prospective customer has visited with (2) a free gift to incentivize them to come back:

    The third type takes a bit more creativity. By way of example, take real-estate website builder InvestorCarrot who promotes both their guides and individual blog posts through Facebook ads:

    3. The Wrong Visual

    There’s an old saying in traditional advertising: “Assume nothing. Test everything.”

    Building off of that concept, our third and final mistake might just be the most deadly. Facebook advertisers often fail because of untested assumptions. They think they know their customers’ likes and dislikes and they run campaigns based on those unverified hypotheses.

    Of course, as the title of this mistake suggests, when I say “they assume a lot of things,” I’m referring principally to the ad’s visuals.


    Because not only is Facebook a visual medium in general, but your ad’s visuals are the first thing an audience sees, and -- if you get it wrong -- it’ll also be the last.

    Organically, Facebook posts with images receive 2.3 times more engagement than their imageless counterparts:

    Image via Buzzsumo

    Unfortunately, just because Facebook ads by default contain visuals, doesn’t mean you can count on them to perform.

    What’s more, given how crowded Facebook is and how seductive the infinite scroll is to users, when crafting the visual side of your ad the best way to stop them in their tracks is to begin with the words not the visuals.

    As legendary adman George Lois once explained, “Start with the word. A big campaign can only be expressed in words that lend themselves to visual excitement.” One of Lois’ most visually striking campaigns -- featuring Andy Warhol and Sonny Liston -- found its inception with the catch-phrase “When you got it, flaunt it” and only after that core verbal idea was captured did it take on visual life:


    Image via Google

    To drive this misstep home on Facebook, let’s play a little game.

    Take a look at the following set of images and let me know which of them you think would convert better in an ad:

    If you’re like most people, you probably selected one or several of the images with a beautiful woman in them. After all, we’ve been told that human faces convert better than product images, especially if they’re smiling and attractive, right?

    Don’t be too sure.

    As KlientBoost reports, “In reality, the best performer, BY FAR, was the somewhat random assortment of decorations.”

    Be warned: the takeaway here is not that product images perform better than conceptual images. No. In fact, in a separate article on Facebook ads, KlientBoost themselves lay down this rule:

    Make ads look organic. You can’t hide the fairly obvious “Sponsored Post” text displayed at the top of your ads. What you CAN do is make your ads look like organic Facebook posts.

    Surprise, surprise – no one hopped on Facebook today with the intent of viewing and clicking your ad. They DID, however, hop on Facebook with the intent of seeing what their friends are doing, saying, and posting.

    While professional photos can do well, often it’s the normal, organic looking photos and videos that perform best.

    The takeaway is that the only way to determine if you're using the wrong visual is to test it.

    I’d love to tell you there’s a one-size-fits-all way to create winning Facebook visuals, but that’s just not how it works.

    Sometimes the choice is clear, as with this ad from Pizza Hut where the image is basically a no brainer:

    To feature multiple products, Facebook’s ad carousel allows you to upload 3-5 images within a single ad unit each with its own link. This approach helped Neiman Marcus increase their click-through rates by 85%.

    Image via Facebook

    The same product-centric focus applies to retargeted ads where your audience has already shown interest in a particular product and simply needs to be reminded. MVMT Watches combination of these two approaches increased their click-through rates by 75% and resulted in “the lowest prices per acquisition the company has ever experienced.”

    Image via Facebook

    If, on the other hand, you’re selling a service or concept -- something people can’t readily understand or that doesn’t lend itself to a product image -- your visuals should tell a story.

    LifeBeam nails the product-meets-story angle in its Facebook ads that put the customer front and center while at the same time including the product:

    Likewise, CoPromote’s ads aim to generate curiosity with its image selection:

    In a similar vein, you can compare the two very different images Sujan Patel uses of himself to sell his services on Facebook: the first, traditional; the second, decidedly non-traditional.

    While you might be tempted to think that on Facebook creativity trumps clarity, that’s not what Sujan discovered. As he told me:

    The traditional ad actually performed far better than the non-traditional ad.

    Because the image is one my audience is more used to associating with the kinds of services I offer, the ad’s relevancy and specificity led to higher click-through rates and a cost-per-click of less than a cent.

    Lastly, do not overlook the power of videos in Facebook advertising.

    The only type of content on Facebook not suffering from dwindling engagement numbers are videos. As Buffer reported just last month, video posts from brands far out performs every other type:

    Image via Buffer

    Building off those numbers, Social Media Examiner recently called attention to a number of Facebook-video-ad musts, four of which stand out prominently:

    1. As a general rule, keep your video ads short: i.e., below 30 seconds.
    2. If your “ad doesn’t look like an ad,” you can get away with longer clips. However, two minutes is still the suggested max. 
    3. Open your ad with a visual bang. Slow burns don’t work on Facebook due to rapid scrolling. On this front, you can also now add gifs to your ads like Wendy’s did below. 
    4. Lastly -- no surprise here -- test, not just video A versus video B, but image versus video itself.


    Getting Facebook Ads Right

    Despite contradictory views from huge players like Zappos and GM, Facebook advertising is statistically one of the most effective ecommerce platforms today. Many businesses – in almost any thinkable industry – are getting amazing results from it.

    The real problem with Facebook ads isn’t Facebook ads themselves; it’s falling into the three fundamental pitfalls we’ve uncovered.

    Certainly, Facebook can be a money-sucking black hole when you don’t know what you are doing.  To avoid that, make sure you don’t fall victim to:

    1. The Wrong Network
    2. The Wrong Target
    3. The Wrong Visual

    About the Author

    Aaron Orendorff is the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus as well as a regular contributor to sites like Mashable, Lifehacker, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Fast Company, The Huffington Post and more. You can connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.