This week saw the release of a controversial report from Forrester, claiming that ‘Facebook is failing marketers’. In an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, analyst Nate Elliot asked why Facebook ads were delivering so little return for many advertisers. 

Could it be because most advertisers on Facebook don’t know what they’re doing?

Before I get into this, I want to point out that I’ve seen plenty of excellent marketing and effective advertising on Facebook.

I’m not tarring everyone with the same ‘why your content isn’t working’ brush, not least because I hate articles like that. Instead, I’d like to suggest that in many cases businesses take a fundamentally incorrect approach to Facebook, one based on returns from older types of advertising that simply aren’t as relevant here.

Secondly, I do think there are several areas Facebook could improve on, and I’ll run through those in a moment, but frankly it feels as though Elliot is setting up a straw man argument

Ads don't engage people, people do

First off the bat, Elliot makes a valuable point about what marketers really want from Facebook - engagement:

[Facebook] focuses too little on the thing marketers want most: driving genuine engagement between companies and their customers. Your sales materials tease marketers with the promise that you’ll help them create such connections. But in reality, you rarely do. Everyone who clicks the like button on a brand’s Facebook page volunteers to receive that brand’s messages — but on average, you only show each brand’s posts to 16% of its fans.

Let’s break that statement down a little for clarity. 

Firstly, this is all well and good, but let’s not forget that we’re talking about ad results here, NOT engagement rates.

We don’t, on the whole, expect engagement from banner ads, and neither should we from regular sidebar ads on Facebook.

Promoted content is a different story, and there’s a reason it often comes out tops when it comes to generating engagement. The content we promote in-stream is fundamentally different from sidebar ads. It very rarely sells directly, and usually looks to garner comments, 'likes' and shares rather than pushing the user into a purchase decision or to an external site. 

In many ways this type of engagement can be seen as a vanity metric. There are certainly uses for large audiences and higher response rates are at least an indicator of how well received your content is, but there are surprisingly few hard metrics that can accurately be applied here.

My own opinion is that this is due to two common misconceptions. Firstly, that we should somehow be applying more rigorous analytic measurement to social PR than we would to ‘regular’ PR, simply because it takes place in an online environment, and secondly, that there is some sort of standard value to the ‘like’.

There isn’t. Each 'like' is a beautiful, individual snowflake, just like the user behind it (unless it’s a bot 'like', in which case it’s an ugly, malformed piece of hateful pig iron). 

When it comes to generating engagement, it’s all on the advertiser, not the platform.

Simply shouting at a customer isn’t any good. Displaying boring or unhelpful content doesn’t work either. You either engage your users or you don’t, and whether that’s done through paid ads or organic content simply doesn’t matter. It requires a sustained human touch to interact with the audience. 

Finally, showing a brand’s posts to an average of 16% of fans is, again, down to a very common misconception about social media platforms that fuels unrealistic expectations. I’ve written about this in the past, but here’s a short recap. 

  • You have a page with 1,000 fans. 500 in London, 500 in Durango (because why not – let’s say you sell taco jellied eels). 
  • You post some content at 10am GMT. 
  • The 500 users in Mexico were asleep so didn’t see it. Before they woke up another 500 companies they liked also posted, so your post was buried further down their news feed. 
  • Meanwhile 300 of the London users were out sweeping chimneys and playing shove ha’penny, and 100 were watching TV, and 15 had popped to the loo…

That’s why they didn’t all see your content. 

If you like, you can pay Facebook some money and they’ll stick that content in those user’s news feeds when they are definitely looking at Facebook. This still won’t account for their sister getting married and the pictures of that being infinitely more interesting to the user than your new burrito and mash combo. 

You can see where this is going. To level accusations of being un-engaging at Facebook is ridiculous. 

Facebook needs better targeting 

Elliot does offer up some salient points in his letter, pointing out that Facebook’s ads aren’t nearly as good as they should be.  

I’m inclined to agree, but in fairness there are arguments for and against this. In the main, the targeting on Facebook is… not all that it should be.

Partly this is because of a focus on consumer products (I can tell you from personal experience that many of Facebook’s ad units perform very poorly for Econsultancy), and partly it’s because of that mis-selling of ‘likes’.

As businesses have sought them out, so Facebook has encouraged users to ‘like’ more and more things. Read a good book? Watched TV? Played a game? Bought a hat? All these things and more are 'like' worthy, and allow Facebook to build a more comprehensive view of the user but at the cost of diluted relevance. 

I ‘like’ online marketing. And I ‘like’ KISS. Which of these is more valuable to an advertiser?

Again, context looms large. It depends what mood I’m in. Maybe I need a new analytics system for my social posts. I do carry out social media analysis all day, every day after all. Then again, I also rock n’ roll every night (and part of every day), so neither of these is a surefire hit. 

Google manages to be effective because its paid ads are based around active need, whereas Facebook’s exist in a far more passive environment, with far more competition.

Put simply, comparing the two is entirely unfair. A far more effective comparison might be TV ad response vs. Facebook ads, but again, it depends on the product, timing etc.

How cost effective would it really be for Econsultancy to advertise our real-time bidding buyer’s guide on primetime television?  The short answer is: it wouldn’t. 

Measurement isn't up to scratch

Finally, there’s a question of the maturity of measurement models here.

Looking at the satisfaction chart produced by Forrester, there’s a clear hierarchy of measurement and experience:

At the top we see disciplines like search and email, practices most businesses have been carrying out for the best part of two decades now, and practices that have comparatively straightforward systems of measurement, usually containing a clearly defined CTA.

At the bottom, we enter into the realm of social, where multiple touchpoint attribution and extended, complex funnel models, based on long-term marketing plans are needed, and as we’ve reported in the past the majority of businesses are simply not able to carry out these types of measurement efficiently. 

Overall, it’s easy to point to Facebook and declare that it isn’t working, but this is more likely because we are simply asking the wrong questions and have unrealistic expectations. 

Matt Owen

Published 1 November, 2013 by Matt Owen

Matt Owen is a marketing consultant based in London. He was previously Head of Social at Econsultancy and currently runs Atomise Marketing. Opinions expressed are author's own.

204 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (16)

Save or Cancel
David S. Tradewell

David S. Tradewell, Senior Vice President, Americas at Econsultancy

Irrespective of whether people agree with the idea, one of the most troubling things for me about Nate's post is just how poor the data analysis is. Asking a question about 'business value' With a scale of 1-5 to a base of 395 marketers in the US, UK and Canada is limited enough. When that results is a spread between 3.54 and 3.84 on a base of fewer than 400 people what conclusion can we draw? The answer is 'no statistically relevant one whatsoever'

You have to wonder why the concept of Confidence Interval seems to have been completely disregarded. This is the worst example of bad science and confirmation bias you could ever hope to see. Is this some kind of publicity stunt to drive traffic by creating a debate where none should exist? Frankly I expected more from an organization like Forrester.

over 4 years ago


Beth Kribs-LaPierre

I have to disagree. As the research focuses primarily on ads, this doesn't even take into account the millions of dollars spent on custom app development (ie. GE Healthy Share, My Local Walmart)? Or, the thousands of hours of planning, copywriting, design, testing and reporting that go into a FB campaign?

Things are going to get real for Facebook for a couple of reasons:

1. Pilot programs and experiments are over. Marketers are no longer testing the waters. Serious resources (budget lines) are being allocated for social. This means more scrutiny and a greater need to prove ROI.

2. Users are already tiring of ads. We now have page post text, video, photo, and link ads, offer ads, event ads, page like ads, mobile app install ads, apps ads and domain ads.

3. In the last earnings call, CFO David Ebersman admitted FB was losing teens. "We did see a decrease in daily users partly among younger teens" but then added "This is of questionable significance"–whatever that means. This is the first time anyone at Facebook has openly admitted a decline in teens, despite media, analysis and research proving otherwise.

To me, going public meant the demise of Facebook. Perhaps not immediately, but inevitably. When you put shareholders' needs before your users', you might as well turn off the lights.

Twitter, are you reading this?

over 4 years ago

Matt Owen

Matt Owen, Marketing Consultant at Atomise Marketing

@Beth - thanks for your comment, yes I agree, My point here isn't that social should not provide ROI, it can and does, but the process of tracking and return is (generally) more complex and extended than that provided by traditional ad campaigns. The ROI is there, but it may not always be seen as a direct response.

Regarding the loss of teen users, I read an interesting piece over on Wired recently, which noted that many teen users actually delete their accounts when logging out of Facebook due to concerns over privacy. As Facebook keeps their existing content for a while after this, they simply reactivate it when logging back in. This is obviously anecdotal, but it's certainly something to consider when looking at these numbers.

over 4 years ago


Chris Leone

Excellent post, Matt. I wish I wrote this ;)

Facebook still offers something no other advertising platform can (online or offline) - and that's the ability to explicitly target a combination of people's specific interests, demographics, and location. That's extremely powerful...when used correctly. And that seems to be your main argument here.

I think as people depart from this notion of using Facebook as a direct response tool, they'll feel better about what they get for their money and adjust their strategy accordingly. After all, success or failure is defined by the expectations we set up front.

over 4 years ago



Matt, good article. I agree with most of the arguments you've put here except one. I don't agree with your explanation for only 16% fans getting to read brand updates.

For whatever logic that Facebook or yourself would like to give, the fact is that Facebook wanted to start charging for brand updates to increase their revenues. They wanted to justify their listing price.

No logic can explain how visibility of brand updates (to its fans) would go down from greater than 50% to less than 15% in under 30 days. Fans browsing habits do not change so drastically, so fast!

over 4 years ago

Matt Owen

Matt Owen, Marketing Consultant at Atomise Marketing

Hi @Neerav - to be honest I'm inclined to agree, I do know that Facebook's content ranking process has affected visibility, but I feel that many page managers were making the assumption that all of their posts were seen by all of their fans every time in the past - the availability of 'seen by' figures merely highlighted this.

I agree that Facebook wants you to pay, but in many cases it doesn't feel as though this is the main factor behind limited visibility.

over 4 years ago


Tim Cross

The long term value for Facebook has always been in the data. We all know that when we are on Facebook we are more interested in seeing what our ex is up to than responding to an ad. But if Facebook use the data they gather across their own site and the thousands of other sites who use their functionality for likes and comments, they could then serve relevant ads in environments more suited and more likely to drive engagement - make these ads available for publishers to run ala Adsense and you open your options up and reduce the need to bombard users across Facebook itself.

over 4 years ago


chris wood

Gosh, this is so reminiscent of the discussions around TV advertising and the 'opportunities to see' coverage models. How much airtime and ratings do I need to buy to get to 4+ OTS for 50% of my target audience (read fans). Just seems to me that FB is now in real media world.
The second aspect is around content and how it creatively engages the target audience (oh, another analogy with the 'old' advertising model).
Things aren't so different online - mainly because human nature is not so different. If you want to get noticed, get engaged with customers /consumers etc, then you have to target the right people with the right engaging messages.

over 4 years ago



"Could it be because most advertisers on Facebook don’t know what they’re doing?"

You seem to make a good case against your own argument. Those same advertisers seem to do OK on other platforms. If people were finding FB effective they would direct some of their time and effort towards learning the process of using the platform effectively. Without that initial success people will not dig deeper. A lot of the arguments for FB that sounded great at the start have not held up.

In highly social activities such as concerts and pubs etc it probably does work or for brands that people buy every day or week. Outside of that I thing there are better places to spend your advertising money.

over 4 years ago

Matt Owen

Matt Owen, Marketing Consultant at Atomise Marketing

Hi Fergus - that's an interesting point but I'm not entirely sure I agree. I'd say they are doing well on other platforms, but then applying the methods that work there directly to Facebook, which is why the shortfall is occurring. I feel as though it really is about fundamentally expecting different results.

over 4 years ago

David Somerville

David Somerville, Strategy Director at Fresh Egg

Good article Matt and some well stated arguments there :)

In my experience several people have made the sweeping generalised comment "well Facebook ads just don't work". However when I've quizzed them about targeting options and using multiple ad variations for testing they go a bit quiet (as they obviously haven't done that bit!).

Like all online advertising, it's about trial and error, with some logical testing you can refine them until you hit the optimal return.

over 4 years ago


Tim Aldiss

Well said David

over 4 years ago

Peter McCormack

Peter McCormack, Founder at McCormack Morrison

The scary thing about the use of Facebook by some companies is running it in isolation of other channels. Smart companies are integrating social with email / web to drive higher engagement. For us FB is a great place to build your audience through micro targeted campaigns but using apps to collect email.

The problems stems from advertising agencies running social campaigns without any real understanding or care to integrate digital channels, they chase likes and report success.

over 4 years ago

Edwyn Raine

Edwyn Raine, Digital Strategist at Evolution 7

I think we need to define failing now and failing in the long-term...

I have seen success across an array of Facebook hosted campaigns, but I would be lying if my belief in their success isn't falling.

Facebook's entire newsfeed model is unfortunately not future proof, and we all need to accept that... By this, I mean we are seeing more pages, more friend connections and more adverts all at once. This content is filling a Newsfeed which is not getting any bigger at the same rate.

This is just a cycle that can only get worse and I would really like to see what Facebook's long-term plans are to reverse this sinking ship.

over 4 years ago

Sophie Hoult

Sophie Hoult, Online & Social Media Executive at DFDS Seaways

The main reason that people can become frustrated with Facebook is most likely the comparison to existing and established online channels - the ability to report in detail and place a value on each activity.

However, with the complex and sophisticated algorithms now in place to better show personal users content that they really are interested in, we can start measuring a number of other factors to begin to understand its success. For example, should we be looking at just reach to measure engagement, or would a comparison of the PTAT value against the total page likes be more appropriate?

But how about taking a look at the PTAT value against the number of people that saw posts that week? This could be more appropriate as like Matt points out, only 16% (on average) see posts... & we all know you can't gain engagement over people who physically have not seen the posts.

To enhance this, Facebook, in my opinion could introduce unique reach to each post (organic especially).

over 4 years ago

Jamie Wonnacott

Jamie Wonnacott, New Vision Media

We've just done some trials on FB advertising and quickly noticed a difference in responses between adverts in the sidebar and those appearing within peoples news feeds. Those in the news feed were far more effective.
Whether any of those clicks will ultimately lead to a sale will take time to test. At this stage we are more interested in using Facebook to build brand awareness.

over 4 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.