The Problem With Social Ads: It’s Not Facebook, It’s You

By Guest Writer 

As a digital marketer, I’m reading far too many articles taking jabs at the Facebook advertising platform. The argument runs that because the ads you see against your profile are sometimes irrelevant, Facebook’s business model is flawed. Most of the articles of this ilk focus on this being Facebook’s problem, with this being a product-related issue. From a user and business perspective, this is simply not true.

Facebook has given us the most sophisticated targeting platform ever seen. The amount of data shared by users, and, therefore, available to advertisers is unprecedented, and Facebook’s platform, although sketchy at times, offers access to a large amount of it.

The fundamental problem that Facebook has right now, in my opinion, is a lack of education on our side as agencies and brands. Facebook has given us the tools to acquire new fans, engage users, create brand advocates, and generate conversions, with the caveat that we have to be sophisticated in our approach to social media advertising to make it work.

The problem is that too many agencies and brands are not taking a sophisticated approach — hence, why users and commentators can justify the view that many ads on the platform are irrelevant. How can targeting users based on the simple fact that someone they know likes a certain brand not cause massive impression wastage? And how can it be justified to target someone based solely on their demographic when so much more information is available? These are some of the scenarios that are happening time and time again, causing massive wastage in terms of impressions and driving down ad performance.

As an example, here’s a quick look at the ads alongside my personal profile right now:

  • I’ve not bought jeans online and don’t like any fashion brands on Facebook, so I can only assume the top ad is targeting me based on my age, location, and gender alone.
  • The “Viewbix” ad seems to be fairly well targeted as it recognizes that I work in some form of tech/marketing sector and may be interested in driving leads and sales.
  • The “Play Wolf Run Slots!” ad looks like another untargeted ad. I don’t like gambling brands or games on Facebook, so there are others much more likely to click than me.
  • The “Ireland’s having a party!” ad is fairly relevant, as I like many travel brands, hotels, and locations so the people behind this campaign would be fairly happy to show it to me, I’d imagine, as we are on the lookout for our next trip away.
  • The final ad for PC World business again is a decent effort in terms of targeting. I like a range of pages than identify me as someone involved in business, and I have bought from PC World recently, so I am possibly being targeted based on my purchase using custom audiences.

So of the top five ads I’ve been served in this session, two are irrelevant to me. Actually, that’s not too bad compared to many occasions, with four out of five regularly being irrelevant. A quick refresh gives me a selection of ads with less relevance, for instance, from golf holidays in Scotland (I don’t like any golf pages), to Sky bundles specific to the northeast of England (I’m already a customer and live a long way from that area).

It would be unrealistic to think that every ad should have 100 percent relevance in terms of impressions served. That’s simply not possible. There will always be occasions where someone has liked a page for inauthentic reasons, or their liking of a certain type of brand is no longer relevant (e.g., pregnancy pages soon become outdated as relevant likes). This means that you will always get some wastage, but our job as advertisers is to reduce this as much as possible by using all of the available options to us.

Sponsored stories can be massively effective, but using the friends of connections targeting in isolation is not enough. Advertisers need to be using numerous variants and combining targeting types for the best results. If using sponsored stories, ensure that you are also using another targeting type, such as precise interests or custom audiences. This will ensure that your ads remain as relevant as possible. Lets say you’re a women’s fashion brand looking to get more fans onto your page and are going down the sponsored stories route. Just targeting friends of your current audience is going to be very wasteful, as many of them will have no interest at all. However, targeting the friends of your connections who are female, within your target age range, who also like other relevant fashion brands (competitors and/or brands with similar positioning), for instance, will give you a much better click-through and conversion from click to like rate.

There are numerous options on the Facebook advertising platform, as I’ve discussed previously here, and trying them all for your brand/clients is the best option so that you can assess which is the best for your specific goals.  The key, as discussed above, is in finding the right combination of targeting sets to really hit your target audience, be that by using custom audiences with demographics, or with precise interests and broad categories.

The best thing about social advertising is that when you get it right, it can completely outperform your expectations, such as this recent campaign, where we achieved a cost per like of £0.02 ($0.03) for one of our properties by using a data-led approach to our targeting combinations:


Ultimately, social advertising is a field in which few people have a wealth of experience. Big agencies tend to leave the Facebook advertising to their display or pay-per-click ad teams, without fully appreciating the differences, largely due to it being a low percentage of the overall ad spend budget they are looking after. In these scenarios, I’d suggest either outsourcing, upskilling, or hiring specialist talent, as social advertising can make a huge difference to brands, but it needs to be managed in a slightly different way to other channels. Advertising on Facebook is all about the data — from who you should target and how, all the way through to optimizing for various different goals — meaning that you may need a more data led team for your campaigns.

It’s time for us to take responsibility as advertisers for our output and make sure as an industry that we step up and use the Facebook platform in a sensible and data-led way, to ensure that the value of the platform continues to be unlocked and isn’t damaged by untargeted, spammy ads.

Key Takeaways

  • Use the full range of Facebook’s targeting options — don’t be afraid to experiment with Facebook Exchange, custom audiences, lookalike audiences, and precise interest targeting.
  • Combine targeting options to achieve the best results.
  • Be sophisticated in your approach — know your audience and know the platform so that you can match the best targeting options to their interests.
  • If you’re a big agency or a brand, you need to consider outsourcing or investing in specialist talent for your social advertising needs. This is a data game, and it very different compared with most other online advertising options.

Readers: Do you agree, or do you still think Facebook’s advertising platform is fundamentally flawed? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, by email (, online at Zazzle Media, or on Twitter (@benharper87).

Ben Harper is a former data analyst turned social media expert, having honed his skills within both major corporations and cutting-edge social startups, and it is that unique mix of skills that makes him a key member of the Zazzle Media team.