The headline of an article I recently read is “Social Advertising Isn’t Really Driving Conversions.” According to a study cited in the article, 16% of respondents age 13 and older said they made a purchase based on a Facebook ad. For Instagram, it was 4 percent. For Snapchat, it was just 1 percent.
The overall takeaway of the study is that a very small percentage of Internet users are influenced by ads they see on social media. As the headline says, social advertising isn’t driving conversions.
I call BS.
I’m not saying social media advertising is effective or ineffective. That’s not the point. I’m saying the data doesn’t prove the conclusion.
What People Say vs. What People Do
I’ve read about surveys in which the majority of respondents would be willing to pay more for healthier products with higher-quality ingredients. They would be more likely to support a business that is environmentally friendly.
When people shop for food, are they paying closer attention to the price tag or the list of ingredients? Do they know how to interpret a food label? When someone buys a product or hires a company to perform a service, have they researched the company’s business practices and operations to evaluate their environmental friendliness?
I’m not saying the people who respond to these surveys are a bunch of liars. I will say that people often respond with what they think is the right answer, even if it’s not what they actually do or believe.
In the case of advertising, most people don’t want to admit they can be influenced by ads. That would be almost admitting they like ads. Some might be afraid they would see more ads.
There are ways to track and measure the effectiveness of advertising. Simply asking people if they ever made a purchase based on a social media ad is not one of them.
What About Ad Quality and Relevance?
The article about social media advertising doesn’t reveal any data about why someone never made a purchase based on a social media ad.
If the quality sucked or the ad wasn’t relevant, that would obviously lead to lower direct conversions.
That’s not a problem with social media or any other advertising platform, whether it’s TV, radio, print or online. That’s a creative problem, a targeting problem or a strategic problem.
I recently bought a canopy for my deck that was advertised on Facebook. But I didn’t buy it from the Facebook advertiser. I Googled the product and found it for much cheaper from another seller that was equally reputable.
That’s a pricing issue, not a platform issue.
I clicked on an ad for a video surveillance camera. Instead of taking me to the product page, it took me to the advertiser’s home page. I had no interest in the advertiser and didn’t feel like digging to find the product advertised, so I left.
That’s a lack of planning issue, not a platform issue.
Advertising Never Gets Full Credit for the Value It Delivers
When I worked in radio, skeptical advertisers always said they never picked up the phone after hearing a radio commercial. “Neither have I,” I always said, which is one of many reasons why putting your phone number in a radio commercial is a complete waste of time.
The bigger point is, most advertising isn’t about instant gratification. It’s about repetition. It’s about building name recognition. It’s about remembering a brand, product or service when the need arises.
In many cases, that need isn’t immediate. I’ve seen an ad for this rubber landscape edging made out of recycled tires advertised by Home Depot on Facebook. I’d love to get it for my yard, but it’s a little pricey. It’ll have to wait. Fingers crossed for next spring.
That doesn’t mean the ad doesn’t have value. Even if I don’t end up buying it, I’ve told others about it. If someone else buys it, the Facebook ad won’t get credit for the purchase. Word-of-mouth will get the credit.
The same thing always happened in radio. If someone didn’t come right out and say they contacted the advertiser or made a purchase because they heard a commercial on the radio, the radio station wouldn’t get the credit. And people would say radio advertising doesn’t work.
Most online activity can be tracked from discovery to purchase. But it’s very common for one platform to get credit for a conversion when other forms of advertising kept the product top-of-mind and did the heavy lifting during the buyer’s journey. If you’re advertising on multiple channels, you can’t evaluate each one in a vacuum.
The Mobile Factor
The new State of Online Retail Performance report from Akamai shows just how much of an impact mobile can have on purchasing behavior.
For example, nearly half of respondents browse on their smartphones, but just one in five actually make a purchase on mobile. This makes sense. People often use mobile to browse, research and read reviews while on the go.
Suppose someone sees a Snapchat ad on their mobile device and researches the product on the train after work. When he gets home, he Googles the product on their laptop. The next day, his wife makes a purchase from her work computer.
This goes back to my point about ads not always getting proper credit. But it also shows how mobile can affect how people buy and how difficult that journey can be to track.
The report also reinforced just how important page load times are. A two-second delay in load time increased bounce rates by up to 103 percent. A delay of 100 milliseconds reduced conversion rates by up to 7 percent.
Fanatics, one of my favorite online retailers, almost doubled mobile conversions by shaving two seconds off its median page load time.
The lesson here is that people may not buy as frequently on mobile, but they have high expectations about the user experience. If someone clicks an Instagram ad and your page takes more than two seconds to load, there’s a good chance you’ll lose the sale.
That’s not Instagram’s fault.
The Bottom Line
Honestly, I don’t do much advertising. I do blog on a regular basis. The same principle applies.
Do all my clients hire or refer me after reading one blog post? Of course not. Some have, but most don’t.
I’ve had clients subscribe to my blog and hire me more than a year later. People also find me on Google, but I rank highly on Google because of my blog. That’s why I ask what specifically came up on Google. My home page? A blog post? If it was a blog, which one?
The bottom line is, if you’re going to evaluate any form of advertising or marketing, you have to dig much deeper than, “Did you ever purchase a product based on an ad on XYZ?”
You also need to formulate a strategy that allows you to track the buyer’s journey as closely as possible. You need to account for ad quality, relevance and messaging. You need to make sure you have a landing page capable of converting when someone clicks an ad.
I don’t know if social media advertising works. I haven’t studied it enough to formulate an educated opinion.
But I call BS on conclusions drawn from “research” that relies on high-level questioning rather than actual data, especially if businesses then use those conclusions to make bad marketing decisions.