Do targeted Facebook ads work as well as we think?

targeted facebook ads

By Mark W. Schaefer

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal this week that dropped one of the biggest bombs on the social media status quo.

I think the best thing to do is let you read this for yourself:

Procter & Gamble Co., the biggest advertising spender in the world, will move away from ads on Facebook that target specific consumers, concluding that the practice has limited effectiveness.

Facebook Inc. has spent years developing its ability to zero in on consumers based on demographics, shopping habits and life milestones. P&G, the maker of myriad household goods including Tide and Pampers, initially jumped at the opportunity to market directly to subsets of shoppers, from teenage shavers to first-time homeowners.

Marc Pritchard, P&G’s chief marketing officer, said the company has realized it took the strategy too far.

“We targeted too much, and we went too narrow,” he said in an interview, “and now we’re looking at: What is the best way to get the most reach but also the right precision?”

At first blush, this had my head spinning. It’s like learning that your best friend is an alien or something. All along, has there ever been a question that targeted ads are going to perform better than shooting a bunch of buckshot ads out there?

As it turns out, other research is coming to a similar conclusion.

A new way to look at targeted Facebook ads

The WSJ cites that over the past year some marketers have discovered they need to go “much more broad” with their social media advertising.

James Douglas, executive director of social-media agency Society, said case studies show that companies can receive a bigger sales increase if they reach a more significant portion of a platform’s overall audience.

For instance, P&G two years ago tried targeting ads for its Febreze air freshener at pet owners and households with large families. The brand found that sales stagnated during the effort, but they rose when the campaign on Facebook and elsewhere was expanded last March to include anyone over 18.

One aspect of this outcome is that targeted ads are more expensive that general ads. So for the same amount of money, you can take out more ads.

Also, I think we need to consider that a product like Febreze might appeal to anybody who has a smelly house. So perhaps the broader ads for consumer products makes sense.

But if you’re a wedding photographer, targeting couples who have changed their status to “engaged” probably still makes sense, right?

On the one hand, the P&G revelation shakes long-held assumptions, but on the other hand, I don’t think we necessarily need to make wholesale changes to strategy. We need to consider this new perspective but adjust based on our own products and markets.

What are your thoughts? How might a broader approach to advertising impact your business?

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon. Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Land Art

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  • Claudia Licher

    Hi Mark, thanks for this post. I think one issue of targeted ads is that they increase the opportunity to unwittingly get your assumptions about a specific group very wrong. Assumption: people with pets and/or large families live in smelly houses. But are they? And are they going to buy a product to mask the smell? Because they may well prefer to clean their house instead of hiding the smell. Or they’re more tolerant to smells than average, who knows? Cleaning the dog or kid makes sense, doesn’t it? So it’s possible a good product is advertized to exactly the group that doesn’t want to buy it (or already does).
    From the moment I checked in on FB I got generally targeted as female, 40+, so must need to lose weight, have a skin peel, and love loose-fitting knitwear. I find that slightly offensive and would feel the same if the assumptions behind the ads were true. So who knows, maybe it does work better if you don’t zoom in too far and stop telling people about their wrinkles and so on 🙂

  • Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I spent a lot of time and energy (on clients’ behalf) trying to master direct mail marketing.

    My efforts taught me something that applies here: Precision-targeting works when a related life-event takes place in near proximity to the arrival of your offer in the prospect’s mail. Absent that event, your offer is simply more “white noise” (“mailbox clutter”).

    Targeting based on demographics cuts waste; but it doesn’t capture sales. Frequency does that.

  • I think the key to understanding this is being overlooked, frankly. You can get great returns with niche targeting for CERTAIN messages. You get better returns with mass targeting for certain other types of messages. If P&G was just trying to get as many people as possible to buy product X, mass targeting is generally (but not always) more effective. If they were trying to start a message seeding play with a small demographic or audience sample, then mass targeting will fail every time. They seem to be saying, “We used it the one way all the gurus told us to and we didn’t hit our numbers, so were going back to the other way.” They don’t seem to realize targeting is a toolkit with dozens of interchangeable ends for the drill of advertising. There aren’t just the flat and phillips head ends that come already in place.

  • Pingback: What Proctor & Gamble May Have Missed With Social Advertising - Jason Falls()

  • I’m interested to see how Facebook will be adjusting their ad strategy in the near future. With the blocking of ad-blockers, supposedly the targeting is supposed to be even better and the spam is supposed to be lessened. Only time will tell, and as a marketer, I’ll be paying close attention! It seems, though, that we have gone too far in one direction, so as with everything else, we have to take a step back, examine, and adjust what we’re doing. Thanks for the post!

  • This is a very insightful and wise comment Claudia. Thank you!

  • wow that is an AWESOME insight Bob. You should blog about that learning.

  • That’s a good point but I don’t know if we have enough information from the article to know about these assumptions. The one thing I know about P&G is that they are obsessed with data and optimizing their ads spend. I do think there is a “there there.” : )

  • Your welcome Yasmin. Also, I read this week that the ad blockers have out-blocked Facebook’s attempts to block them … if that makes sense. What a world : )

  • As Claudia mentioned before me, targeted ads force you to reconsider the assumptions and hypotheses you make about your audience. I think no targeting will be 100% accurate and because of organic reach on FB, you may end up serving your ad to hundreds and even thousand of people who are not interested, and do not fit your target audience in any way. As far as I know, I think that there is no way to control for ‘virality’ outside your intended audience, just simple keep adjusting for these kinds of things. I am also paying close attention to this!

  • Claytonjay101

    So it seems the lesson here is that Facebook advertising is really effective but only when used correctly. As you mentioned, if a wedding photographer targeted engaged couples, how could that not work or be really effective?

    I would be interesting to know with P&G if they screwed up with their market segments but blamed Facebook targeting. They did not know their customer as well as they thought and they saved face (or jobs) by blaming Facebook. Also, are buyer personas the same offline as they are online, specifically in Facebook profiles (just asking the question I really don’t know)? Are advertisers assuming too much, could that have contributed to P&G’s stumble?

    The logical conclusion here from P&G’s failure is to experiment. Try broad, try to narrow in on specific buyer personas, measure both and see what works better. Always work to improve your buyer personas so you can continuously improve. Perhaps P&G was not succeeding because they only did narrow, did not do broad and did not measure both to see what works better.

  • Well said Larissa.

  • These are all interesting points. My assumption is that the biggest advertiser in the world would be on top of this and not draw this conclusion without exhaustive research but maybe not. Good advice in there sir.

  • Great insights, Bob. What is most fascinating to me about this is that (coming from the same far away place….) is that the fundamentals have not changed, only the technology to apply them. So many totally ignore that basic fact.

  • Hey Mark, great discussion! As you so clearly stated, it depends. It depends on how well you understand your market. P&G clearly understands theirs and have made choices on proven results. Therein lies the answer.

  • You’re right, fundamentals don’t change; and many, many people ignore them (or are unacquainted with them).

    Marketing technology is cool, but it doesn’t exempt you from the laws of gravity.

    We probably sound shrill, insisting you cannot flout the basics.

    Oh, no, we’ve turned into our fathers!

  • Thanks for the suggestion. Watch for tomorrow’s post. You’ve inspired me, sir!

  • Yup, what’s that old saying? The older I get the smarter they get? Can’t wait to see your blog tomorrow.

  • Right on. Always honored to have you comment Steve!

  • This article is quite useful for increasing
    more awareness and knowledge . yes it’s works here we can targeted age limited person.

  • This bares out my own experience. Some industries I work with were getting terrible results with their specifically targeted ads so I’ve recommended more broad targeting. Particularly for local businesses I’ve found that targeting beyond the hyper local market has decreased the ads effectiveness.

  • You know what is surprising? Why haven’t we seen any research come out before this? There seems to be an underlying theme that some people were seeing similar things. With the amount of money being spent on Facebook ads, it is amazing to me it has not been studied more. Thanks for sharing your experience Amanda!

  • Dan Schonfeld

    Guys, Facebook nor anyone social platform with ad targeting has deciphered how to re-calibrate ad targeting to aging profiles. For example-7 years ago I may have been running marathons, liked the movie old school, and had a dog named zippy, but today I’m overweight downing croi-nuts (def not how you spell this), can’t stomach the sight of Luke Wilson’s stupid face and now love cats (I don’t). When you start targeting this granularity we must realize we are potentially sacrificing more expansive consumer reach for perceived reach and value due to outdated and often inaccurate data. Don’t get it twisted though, FB f’in rocks and is far superior than anything that has come before, but the basics always apply- test, test, test, test and when done testing test some more tests.

  • FB thinks I’m a 13-year old girl, based on the ads it presents me.

  • Oh I’d love to see a report! Interestingly, up until recently Facebook thought I was a parent… I think they need a special category for internet marketers that by necessity look at a wide range of pages and content on Facebook.

  • wasn’t facebook ads confirmed to be an asian click farm? pay $50 get 1000 likes

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