Businesses are advertising on Facebook more – ten times more, to be exact. This is more than simply another channel for businesses and brands to reach internet users and peddle wares – although the fact that Facebook is the web’s top-ranked site doesn’t hurt. (Political races have already felt a limited impact of Facebook ads – recall that in 2008, a $51 ad buy helped a Dartmouth college student win a county treasurer race, and 2010 Congressional candidates are building their follower lists now.)
So leaving aside the obvious reason of the network’s large – and growing – audience, what has been driving the rapid growth of Facebook’s ad platform?
1. Budget justification through analytics, flexibility, and (most important) measurable results
The internet has been to advertising what the Moneyball approach has been to baseball – it allowed stat-crunchers and analysts to break down real-world activity into numbers, and optimize their activities according to what yielded the best results. (This had, of course, been going on as long as advertising had been around, but the internet allowed for more variables and more precise measurements.)
Like any successful online ad platform, Facebook allows advertisers to examine what trends work and what don’t, and change things like creative and targeting accordingly. This is what has made Google the world’s biggest advertising company.
It’s especially important for Facebook because, as ubiquitous as the site is, many businesses are concerned about dipping a toe in Lake Facebook. Put another way, the question for the budget-masters to ask themselves is: What if we built a Facebook page, and no one likes us? Having a dead Facebook page is worse than having no Facebook page at all.
Facebook ads can give advertisers and brand managers ammunition to go to these budget managers and identify key, reachable metrics to justify not only the ad flight, but an entire Facebook strategy.
Another page from the Google playbook for online advertising is the ease with which anyone can build a Facebook ad. It requires creativity, strategy, and writing skill, but you don’t have to be a technological genius.
This is important for two reasons. First, if you’re in the business of selling ads (either directly or as part of an overall brand or issue management strategy), the advertising model is easy to understand and sell to a potential client.
Second, it expands the universe of potential advertisers. Local businesses could target users in their neighborhood with limited buys that are put together the same way as the ads of a national brand like Old Spice. Like Google, Facebook makes very powerful advertising tools accessible to small businesses and individuals as well as large companies.
3. Peer pressure
The first two drivers of Facebook’s ad success involve its adoption of features that Google and other networks perfected; the next two involve advantages Facebook enjoys over Google search advertising. The first and most obvious is the “like” feature on ads, which allows users to see whom among their friends has clicked on it. This is a small feature, but it taps into what has always been the driving force of activity on Facebook: the idea that people get most of their information from their friends. That’s a big reason why Facebook drives more web traffic to news and other sites than Google. By leveraging peer pressure where it can, Facebook gives its ads that much more impact.
The platform also allows advertisers to target friends of existing members of fan pages or group members. For instance, if my friend likes Organizing for America, then OFA can direct an ad at me, figuring that I might be a potential supporter as well.
4. Attractive ads
Back in the early days of online advertising, display ads checkered websites the way print ads checker newspapers and magazines. Google’s search ads were less attractive but more effective, since they were based on a user’s searches and interests. There were no pictures, because that would have only cluttered the space.
Facebook’s text ads with a small thumbnail both draw the eye and allow for some illustration of the brief message. Facebook ads require the same pithy writing as Google ads, but the small picture makes a big difference.
Facebook’s ad prices haven’t grown with its user base, so it has remained a cheap cost-per-click option for advertisers. That, combined with an extremely flexible pricing structure, results in a platform that lends itself to very limited and easy ad flights. This allows for a $10 or $20 test campaign – low enough that curious individuals can run one on their own, or front the costs on a project for a client and work on a contingency basis. That low barrier of entry that promotes experimentation helps win over new advertisers – and, once they figure the platform out, gives them a reason to stay.