Ever watched an industry race to the bottom? It’s scary…and I’m watching it happen in the intersection of Facebook, “Social,” Search, and Integrated Marketing Communications. Here’s more:
First, I’ll get the shameless plug out of the way; it does actually relate to today’s subject – “Facebook Ads and the Race to the Bottom” – because the sites I’m working on are petri dishes in our global marketing lab (of sorts) here at Area 224 HQ. We’re all-meta, all the time, as we started with a site called Metasip almost two years ago, and have expanded to include Metakitchen within the last few weeks. These sites are a number of things: review sites, engagement portals, and a hub where those who promote things (Metasip does alcohol, Metakitchen does all things related to food) can connect. [End of shameless plug.]
Part and parcel of the work at Area 224 is to prove the value of what we do – integrated marketing communications (not just public relations) as a discipline that, when working hand in hand with a company’s business strategy, can indeed have bottom line results. We used to talk about this as something we called “Objective-oriented marketing;” the belief that you’re barking up the wrong tree if you’re working on a tactic (usually social, often sold to you by either a shyster or an amateur or – WORSE – an amateur shyster) that isn’t in line with a business strategy.
I’ve said this often as an independent practitioner: I will turn down work if I believe it to be a waste of the company’s money. I prefer sleeping at night to cashing checks that don’t seem right, and adding value is something I pride myself in doing.
Bringing us to today’s point:
Facebook ads are precipitating a race to the bottom in social media, in search engine optimization, and in integrated marketing communications.
Firstable, the numbers
Here’s a screen shot from a recent ad campaign we conducted on behalf of Metasip.
While that might look like a lot of mumbo jumbo to the outsider, it’s really rather simple in the grand scheme, and let me walk you through the numbers that are there so you have the background you need. (If you know all this already, scroll down to the subhead that says “You Need a Strategy” and pick up the article from there.)
We ran this campaign for 24 hours (under “Schedule” above) and we spent $20.00. The ad had an “Objective” of “Post Engagements,” and those are defined in this little screenshot (which we got from mousing over the question mark above the number “66.” [N.B. We chose a campaign that is typical of the dozens of campaigns we have run on Facebook throughout the past year. Your experience may vary – and, if you have more money to spend, you may get better results than we did. But let’s use this as a really good example to support our case.]
- Clicking the “Like” button on the post (one we wrote about cheap red wine)
- Clicking the Like button on the Metasip Page
- Clicking through to read the post itself – on Facebook or on our website
- Clicking through to comment on the post itself
The easy, quick, and “meaty” math goes like this:
$20.00 in spend, divided by 66 “post engagements” equals an average cost of $0.30 per engagement.
You Need a Strategy
I had a flashback the other day to my time running a startup and sitting down with an executive – someone who is well-regarded as having a sort of magic touch when it comes to business. I had a service I was selling, he had a business that could have used my service to promote itself, but he was hung up on one number – ONE NUMBER – that drove all of his thinking.
The number happened to be “CPM,” in case you’re wondering, and the problem for me – the one thing that kept us from working together – was that I did not play in the CPM space. At all. Couldn’t – even though my online education portal was in the business of “microtargeting” and we had a strategy to market and find students who were interested in schools that were off the beaten path, and this guy’s property fit our description of a target market, he had only ever worked in a CPM space. Spend $10, get 1,000 views of your ad and your CPM is $10.
This particular executive was blessed: he had a crazy large budget to work with and could put scads of people to work to spend that budget on a variety of marketing tactics. He was also successful at his business because of the strategy that drove these tactics. The fact that our portal didn’t fit into his way of doing business – because it was new, undefined, different, and “not the way we’ve always done things” – was fine in the grand scheme (in fact, it was one of the big learnings for me, and eventually drove me out of that particular industry and, instead, to launching Area 224).
Post Engagements are the “New CPM”
Flash forward to more recent history and my discussions with another, totally different type of executive. Different can be good, different can be bad and, in this case, different is just different. And illuminating: this executive has always done things a certain way – and that certain way involves Facebook as the sum total of her marketing strategy.
We went down the following road, and here’s what the back-and-forth looked like, in brief, with some of the specifics around price changed to protect the innocent.
Me: I understand that you’re looking for help promoting your business, and you’re looking to outsource a piece of your marketing communications strategy to an outside consultant. We can put together a rather robust proposal, but would love to talk about your business strategy first.
Her: Our strategy is already set. How much does it cost to work with you?
Me: Well, we normally don’t do one-offs without an understanding of what you want to get out of it, but a typical program gets you…[WORDS, BULLET POINTS, TACTICS THAT SOUND GOOD] and will cost you…[WORDS, NUMBERS, ETC.].
Here’s where I start to get rather afraid that this is going downhill, but I’m still interested in hearing her thoughts.
Her: That sounds like way too much for us. In fact, our last Facebook Ad campaign got us 3,000 views and a couple hundred engagements and we only spent $20! You’re exponentially more than that, and there are no guarantees of success.
Me: We’re talking more robust, actual engagement – not the BS FB engagement. Trust me, the value you’ll receive in actual content and actual time spent building community and actually engaging with your fans, followers, and friends – and not just on Facebook but on the other platforms we’ll work with you on – we’ll be able to prove that there’s way more value there when the program is done…as long as we can understand what your business strategy and your marketing strategy look like.
Her: Are you willing to go pay-for-performance with this campaign?
“Everyone’s an Armchair Marketer…”
Well before I ran the startup, I was a VP of Global PR at a Financial Services firm; before that, I spent time in a division of the same firm with a boss whose mantra was quite direct – “marketing exists to support sales.” It was great: we did everything in consultation with the sales teams, and if it wasn’t something that they could sell behind, we weren’t going to put marketing dollars toward it.
In one discussion with a line manager who, also, had a very specific charge, we were told that ours might be the most difficult job in the entire company. This is because, in this executive’s assessment, “Everyone’s an Armchair Marketer.”
Think about it: an executive in the pre-social media days is told by a friend “hey, you should write a white paper and use it as a marketing tool!” Not knowing any better, he suggests it to the marketing team; he may also control the purse strings and say that it’s a good use of money, so you might as well give it a try. Voila, the “White Paper Strategy” is born.
Now, in the Social Media Era – or, even more directly, the Facebook Ads Era – not only does the executive hear about a marketing tool that works, or that is cheap, or, WORSE, works and is cheap…this executive, like our mini-case study above, has already TRIED the marketing tool.
And guess what: Facebook doesn’t ask what your Business Strategy is. And they don’t really ask what your Marketing Strategy is, either…they just want you to buy their version of “engagement.” Whether you buy it directly or buy it from someone else who does the dirty work, you’re just aiming for the lowest cost for that engagement. Right?
The Race to the Bottom Never Ends Well…
Our problem with what Facebook is doing to the entire Integrated Marketing Communications suite stems from those engagement numbers our executive above is touting. If they’re getting 30 cents per “engagement” then why wouldn’t they continue getting 30 cents an engagement and just spend a few hundred dollars, tops, in order to get over a thousand engagements and the world will beat a virtual path to their door.
The executive doesn’t need us to help them – they only need a few bucks of juice on their corporate credit card. Engagements are coming. They’re the armchair marketer.
The Danger for the Executive: Facebook is selling you “engagements” but not giving you any sense of real, true value behind those engagements. What’s a Like really worth? What’s a visit to your site worth? What about someone “liking” the post but never ever doing anything else. Ever.
The Danger for Facebook: These engagements may be valuable in the grand scheme, but they’re pretty much done in a vacuum. And as the cost gets driven downward, the engagements become less and less valuable – nut just in the true dollar sense, but in the perception as well. “A buck a like? I can get you pennies a like!”
The Danger for the Consultant (not just guys like me, but the independent consultant who dabbles in social media “without a license”): There is always going to be someone who can “do it for less.” My $10,000 proposal to align your marketing strategy with your business strategy and measure a whole host of outcomes and drive real bottom-line engagement doesn’t stand a chance when presented to an armchair marketer who can spend $20 on a bunch of page views and outsource the remainder to someone in their dining room who can do a one-off campaign on Pinterest for $150.
Facebook’s definition of “engagement”
When the real work takes time, building the strategy should be of utmost importance to the business executive. And to the marketing consultant, the desire to have those real discussions – something akin to “discovery” for the lawyer – is the thing that should drive every single engagement.
The problem, as I see it, is this awful use of “engagement” as a thing that can be measured in clicks. It’s scary, but it’s Facebook’s business and that’s why they’re successful.
I shied away from working with the executive above because it was obvious, to me, that the well had been poisoned by Facebook. In her mind, engagement is a thing that Facebook handles, and they do it inexpensively. Her strategy doesn’t need me – Facebook is giving her the impression that engagement IS the strategy, the Facebook definition of engagement is the only way to do it, and Bob’s Your Uncle. (In other words, don’t hire Dave – hire Facebook, or hire Dave’s competitor for a fraction of the cost for that component, or just whip up a faux strategy on your own and…)
My biggest concern
My biggest concern is that Facebook Ads – and their perceived effectiveness, which isn’t grounded in the real world but their version of it – leads to laziness on the part of everyone in marketing, and a Race to the Bottom. There’s no need for a strategy when you have Facebook, and there’s no need for someone to help you with the strategy when you can whip up your own.
We’re all racing to the bottom. And it won’t end well.