Paid Social: The New Focus Group for Brands?

Opinion: It can act as the most authentic litmus test

Unlike focus groups or surveys, audiences act completely naturally on social skynesher/iStock

Most marketers know this: What you say your brand is does not a brand make in your customers’ eyes. Your brand is the perception your audience holds of you. It can mean different things to different audiences.

This should be mirrored back to them through advertising, of course, but paid social can also really inform what your brand and creative strategy should look like. If used correctly, it can serve as the ultimate focus group—research used to inform campaigns of the savviest, biggest brands for decades.

Who is your customer? What makes them tick, click and buy?

Those are the (quite literally) million-dollar questions brands obsess over. They hire consultancies to run consumer research, strategists spend hours on end mining and interpreting data, and focus groups are summoned all for one end-goal: to shape and define that ever-so-elusive buyer persona.

Brands brief their creative in-house teams or agencies to produce a campaign based off of the buyer personae. This is where things get complicated. Between briefing and debriefing, presentations, comment rounds and production, the message and the creative has gone through a heavy cycle of edits and changes. The distance between the initial personae briefing and the end result grows greater. Add another campaign focus group to the mix, and you’ll likely never hit the target bang-on.

This is because people, in testing situations, don’t behave as they would intuitively. They say what they think they think instead of what they actually think. The 2016 elections were a textbook example of this behavior with the massive disconnect between polls and the end result. Representation is also an issue: How do you ensure that your focus group truly represents the audience the ads will be served to?

Paid social to the rescue

When it comes to finding a winning brand strategy, paid social, when used correctly, can act as the most authentic litmus test for understanding the triggers that prompt people to buy. Unlike focus groups or surveys, audiences act completely naturally on social, as they are not aware of being part of a test.

Social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are a hugely untapped testing resource, most likely because marketers have taken the traditional “all campaigns should be perfect and polished” mentality and applied it to the newer digital channels. Unlike print or outdoor, on social, you have the chance to be imperfect, to test more novel approaches and even make a misstep or two along the way.

How to test to guide your brand

A/B testing—splitting an audience of a similar profile in equal parts to run different ad variations—can help brands determine a range of qualifiers from minute details to overarching concepts when done properly. Here are a few:

  • The brand tone of voice: playful or serious, persuasive or soft?
  • Visuality: illustrations or real people, color schemes?
  • Ad formats: GIFs or video, cinemagraphs or longer-form storytelling?
  • Concepts: should you advertise product X with a moving or a funny campaign?
  • Brand behavior: should you be politically active or neutral? Do you keep to your turf or comment on pop culture?

With these variations, it’s important to only change one thing at a time. For example, if you’re testing hard-sell vs. soft-sell copy, the rest of the ad should be identical down to the colors and visuals. You shouldn’t target the same audience with other campaigns while testing, and you need to make sure that your audience is large enough to yield statistically significant results.

What to measure? An increase in positive brand sentiment is great, comments and likes are nice, but conversions are gold. Facebook, in particular, is built for this kind of performance-driven testing.

Ultimately, your brand serves to persuade more sales to your company. Having said that, driving commercial success doesn’t mean dulling down your advertising to simple direct-response—it’s quite the contrary. As the competition for attention intensifies online, unique storytelling is what captures attention and, consequently, converts.

Lastly, it’s important to understand that this kind of testing isn’t a campaign quick fix, but an ongoing process that should inform your long-term creative and brand strategy. Keep an open mind and be ready to shift gears fast based on results. Curious marketers who test instead of assuming will win the race.

Christine Göös is head of content at Facebook and Instagram advertising platform