Facebook Embraces Direct Response

Facebook dominates the Web, but it’s never really cracked the direct response puzzle. That looks like it will change in 2013 with an avalanche of new measurement and targeting tools. As a marketing platform, Facebook has traditionally thrived at top-of-the-funnel advertising. Unlike search, which hits people just as they express an interest in buying a certain product or service, social media marketing at its best builds relationships, and there’s compelling evidence for its value.

Facebook dominates the Web, but it’s never really cracked the direct response puzzle. That looks like it will change in 2013 with an avalanche of new measurement and targeting tools.

As a marketing platform, Facebook has traditionally thrived at top-of-the-funnel advertising. Unlike search, which hits people just as they express an interest in buying a certain product or service, social media marketing at its best builds relationships, and there’s compelling evidence for its value.

The heavy lifting for this type of advertising, however, happens on the advertisers’ own media—their brand pages. Although Facebook doesn’t charge for brand pages, it can still make money from them by selling ad units that encourage users to become fans, or that amplify the reach of content shared on the page. In a lot of ways, these are straight direct response ads, but with a call-to-action for a “like” or “share” and not a sale.

Showing marketers how many likes or conversations an ad produces is one thing, but proving ultimate sales is another, much more difficult job. Because Facebook advertising traditionally operated high in the funnel, the platform has long suffered from a “last-touch” bias. Click rates and conversions probably underestimate the actual impact of advertising on the Facebook platform, especially for the small display ads that appear to the right of the newsfeed. If people see an ad while they’re checking in on their friends, they may not click. Or they may click on it and do nothing. Later, however, they may decide to go to the website or a store and make a purchase. It’s often this last channel that gets outsized credit for this sale.

Overcoming this last-touch bias has become an imperative for Facebook. First of all, Facebook has developed “sponsored stories,” a native ad format that appears in the newsfeed and refers to how a friend interacted with a brand—becoming a friend, commenting on an article, redeeming an offer, etc. They still pivot off the relationships within Facebook’s social graph but have much higher CTRs and engagement. With these ads, Facebook has a more powerful format, where CTR becomes their ally as opposed to an obstacle.

Facebook is also trying to move down the purchase funnel by giving advertisers the ability to reach people who have already shown interest in a brand. Last year, Facebook introduced two new advertising products that do this. Custom Audience targeting lets advertisers upload their proprietary lists and match them with Facebook users to deliver sponsored stories or standard display ads to their existing customers. Early results show that these custom lists produce higher CTR and lower cost-per-lead. In February, Facebook reached an agreement with big data aggregators Epsilon, Axciom, BlueKai and Datalogix to import even richer audience segments.

Ulitmately, an even more important innovation might be Facebook Exchange, which allows marketers to retarget ads on Facebook. Through cookies and other tracking tools, Facebook can identify which websites users have visited—and even specific products they’ve browsed—and then deliver ads based on this information. Although the exchange is still in its early stages, it too has shown promising results.

Through Custom Audiences and its Exchange, Facebook is digging deeper into the buying process, but its big challenge remains attribution. It needs ways to span the gulf between advertising on the Facebook platform and the ultimate actions it produces. Custom Audiences and the Exchange have shrunk the width of this gulf but haven’t eliminated it—and its advertising team knows it.

That explains why Facebook bought Atlas Solutions from Microsoft right at the end of February. The ad server enhances Facebook’s ability to track online purchases. In announcing the service, Facebook’s Head of Monetization Product Marketing Brian Boland said, “Why we’re doing this is not to launch an ad network, and why we did do this is to improve measurement. We heard loud and clear from advertisers that they want to understand multi-touch attribution instead of just looking at the last click.” With the ad server, Facebook can deliver more types of ads to more publishers and, most importantly, it can effectively follow what users do online. It’s an incredibly powerful tool for online attribution.

It is made even more powerful when paired with Facebook Connect, a plug-in for online publishers that lets visitors log in to a website with their Facebook email and password. The service gives websites a simpler login process and gives them access to a rich layer of biographical information and connections that Facebook has amassed. Facebook, in turn, can see what people are doing all across the Web, not just in their walled community and, importantly, it can track activity across multiple devices, as long as a user has logged into Facebook from that device. If you see an ad on your desktop but convert via your phone or tablet, Facebook can track the activity.

Combining Atlas and Facebook Connect produces a powerful suite of online measurement tools. With a partnership with Datalogix, it can even track activity offline via loyalty cards and email addresses collected at checkout. With these tools, Facebook seems positioned to fully “close the loop” and overcome the last-touch bias. In classic direct marketing fashion, they also let Facebook better optimize who receives advertising. If you know who’s bought your products, you’ve found a great audience for future purchases.

Better measurement tools and advertising formats with higher click-rates transform Facebook into a legitimate direct marketing player. With Facebook experimenting with a slew of new DR formats and tools, including trigger-based Gifts, the social search tool Graph Search, redeemable Offers, and its gift card called—what else—Facebook Card, Facebook seems finally to have embraced it inner direct marketer.

How Evolving Mobile Behaviors are Raising the Stakes for Marketers

While none would argue that 2011 was the year of the mobile app, marketers have been hearing more noise about the mobile web as a cross-device alternative to apps that are downloaded and installed. The reality isn’t so clear-cut.

While none would argue that 2011 was the year of the mobile app, marketers have been hearing more noise about the mobile web as a cross-device alternative to apps that are downloaded and installed. The reality isn’t so clear-cut.

If anything, the division of the mobile smartphone space into iOS and Android, as well as demographic and usage patterns on these platforms, means that targeting and developing effective mobile experiences just got a whole lot harder. But this is translating into more options for mobile marketers in 2012.

When you look at actual user behavior on smartphones, you might wonder how the mobile web would effectively fit in at all. The focus for both iOS and mobile users is on app usage versus mobile web access. Apps have become so successful that they’re moving us away from the web in general. The reasons are rather straightforward:

1. Curated content apps have become primary experiences. Whether public or ad supported, curated content sources (e.g., NPR and The Wall Street Journal) have found the niche within application environments that move users away from the web and directly toward branded experiences they trust as either primary or authoritative sources of information.

2. Excerpted content typically satisfies curiosity. Even more popular apps don’t necessarily translate to more mobile web activity. This has always been the fear with content syndication in general, but combine it with a preference for a more focused and curated experience and you get a further erosion of mobile web traffic.

3. The ease of use and established reliance on app stores. The effectiveness of the app store model combined with mobile context to include desktop environments further reinforces the shift from the web search route as a first stop for function resources.

Websites are driving traffic to apps instead of presenting a mobile-optimized version of themselves. Many sites could take advantage of users visiting via mobile device to optimize their experience. Instead, you should drive them to download apps that provide a specific or focused subset of content and functionality. Focus on creating a controlled and curated environment for experiencing content.

Further complicating matters are the differences in demographics and behavior between iOS and Android users. Android users tend to be heavier app users than iOS users (by a significant percentage), according to recent Fiksu research.

According to a recent Hunch.com survey, gender balances, income levels, age ranges and other important segmenting criteria also differ significantly between audiences. Certainly there’s enough to merit taking a closer look at these considerations when designing mobile experiences for these platforms. Android adoption rates make it clear that supporting Android isn’t an option; it’s a requirement in order to reach as broad a mobile and tablet audience as possible.

Tablets are an important area where the mobile web, and the higher percentage of mobile web usage among iOS users, comes into play. Tablets offer a superior web browsing experience. In addition, differing usage patterns and behaviors mean that tablet-based experiences can be deeper and richer than mobile-optimized executions and will track close to desktop browsing.

What does all of this mean for mobile marketers and advertisers in 2012? Android’s broader audience and superior mobile ad performance will make it a focus for mobile display advertising efforts. Apple’s advertising formats are of primary interest within the context of specific applications where their inclusion and application usage merit the investment. In-app advertisement effectiveness becomes even more critical to understand and measure in this context, as those investments tend to be higher than broader mobile ad networks buys.

Social platform mobile integration efforts need to be watched closely. Emerging apps and potential ad integration capabilities are key focal points for marketers already heavily invested in social platforms or for those looking to leverage location-enabled social networks more heavily.

Tablet and touch-optimized experiences via the mobile web will be critical to support the heavier skew of browser usage among tablet owners. Give specific consideration to the ability to leverage touch-enabled HTML5 implementations and the superior browsers offered by these platforms.

2012 will certainly be the year when marketers’ attention will be firmly focused on mobile, but in reality that represents separate and to some extent distinct experiences — e.g., mobile apps, mobile websites and tablet-optimized versions of both.