BBC Investigates Ineffective Facebook Advertising, But Was Methodology Flawed?

By David Cohen 

The BBC reported the results of its investigation of the effectiveness of advertising on Facebook, and while it did illustrate some valid concerns, such as fake profiles, the questionable tactics used in its made-up advertising campaign overrode several of its other findings.

The report by the BBC mentioned the case of social media marketing consultant Michael Tinmouth, who ran Facebook advertising campaigns for a number of small businesses, including a luxury goods firm and an executive coach, and found that many of the resulting likes came from countries such as Egypt and the Philippines, from questionable profiles, with Tinmouth telling the BBC:

They were 13 to 17 years old, the profile names were highly suspicious, and when we dug deeper, a number of these profiles were liking 3,000, 4,000, even 5,000 pages.

While Tinmouth raised some legitimate concerns, he also mentioned that the campaigns targeted “Facebook users around the world.” Perhaps his results would have been better if he had taken advantage of Facebook’s targeting capabilities and focused on specific regions where his clients’ products or services could generate the most interest, or tailored several targeted local campaigns rather than one large global campaign.

When Tinmouth complained to Facebook, saying that one of his clients refused to pay for the campaign because it had not reached “real people,” the social network responded that the majority of users were authentic, and that it would not issue a refund, saying that Tinmouth aimed his campaign at a global audience and did not narrow down a target group.

The BBC followed suit by creating an imaginary company called VirtualBagel, setting up a Facebook page, and running an advertising campaign on the social network.

VirtualBagel, too, drew a disproportionate number of likes from Egypt and the Philippines, and from several profiles that seemed questionable. But much like Tinmouth, the BBC did not narrow down the target audience for the VirtualBagel campaign.

The ineffective targeting practices employed by Tinmouth and the BBC aside, the issue of fake profiles on Facebook remains a thorny one, with Graham Cluley of security firm Sophos telling the BBC:

Spammers and malware authors can mass-produce false Facebook profiles to help them spread dangerous links and spam, and trick people into befriending them.

We know some of these accounts are run by computer software with one person puppeteering thousands of profiles from a single desk handing out commands such as: Like as many pages as you can to create a large community.

I’m sure Facebook is trying to shut these down, but it can be difficult to distinguish fake accounts from real ones.

A Facebook spokesman told the BBC, in response to Tinmouth’s complaint, “We would never recommend that anyone conduct business in this way,” and addressed the fake profile issue with the following statement:

We’ve not seen evidence of a significant problem. Neither has it been raised by the many advertisers who are enjoying positive results from using Facebook. All of these companies have access to Facebook’s analytics, which allow them to see the identities of people who have liked their pages, yet this has not been flagged as an issue.

A very small percentage of users do open accounts using pseudonyms, but this is against our rules, and we use automated systems, as well as user reports, to help us detect them.

Readers: Do you think Tinmouth and the BBC have valid complaints about the quality of the likes generated by their campaigns, or do you think they should have taken advantage of Facebook’s targeting capabilities and run more effective campaigns?