In looking at display media statistics, the data overwhelmingly points to Facebook as the clear leader, both in terms of advertiser display spending, as well as in usage. According to data released by eMarketer this month, the total US display advertising net revenues were roughly $12.4 billion in 2011. Facebook’s net ad revenues came in at $1.73 billion, or 14% of the total. Google’s network trails just slightly, coming in at a total of $1.71 billion in display net revenues for 2011 based on the report. And the projections indicated continued growth through 2012.
The numbers are equally staggering in looking at impressions served. According to ComScore data for the calendar year 2011, Facebook served 154 times the impression volume that the next closest ad network (Yahoo Sites) did.
Based on the above, from a media planning perspective, we would be remiss not to consider Facebook as part of a display media mix. However, statistics aside, I can’t help but question whether Facebook ads can really be considered “true” display, and wonder if there are factors that may prevent ongoing adoption of the vehicle at scale.
Specifically, I see the following three differences as core to the “Facebook as display” conundrum:
Ad Formats Differ
First are the ad formats, which deviate from traditional display definitions. Facebook ads are, in my mind, a hybrid of search (or contextual) ads and display. With text content that has character limitations in title and description, the development strategy of the message is far more similar to paid search than to display. However, the image use alongside copy does require some creative thought, similar to a banner ad in defining what image would be best suited to capture user attention.
Additionally, news has recently been leaked that Facebook is set to launch new Premium Ad units, which Fastcompany.com states “based on a review of documents which purport to describe them, the social network would seem to be doubling down on two core principles that mark fundamental departures from traditional advertising.” The ads will be social in nature, in that they will reportedly show users which friends have already liked the advertiser, and the actual copy of the ads will be drawn from posts or Facebook profiles, rather than independently written ad-specific content.
The Management Technology Differs
The second point of differentiation between Facebook ads and display is technology. Display advertising is typically served via ad servers (with any sort of scale, anyways). However, it hasn’t been ad serving companies like DART and Atlas that have been integrating themselves with Facebook, but rather, it’s been the paid search campaign management platforms like Kenshoo, Marin, and others that are at the forefront of Facebook API integrations. There are likely two factors at play which prompted this trend. First is the auction based model for buying advertising on Facebook, which is definitely more search-eque than it is display-like. Bid management platforms were structured around the idea of the auction based pricing model, and utilize positioning or performance data on which to make bid decisions, a practice which lends itself well to Facebook ad pricing. The second is the ad format, discussed above. With the heavy portion of the ads being text –based, they cannot be served via an ad server as traditional display ads are. Whereas, they can be loaded via a bulk sheet into a campaign management technology that operates off of the same process for paid search.
It is this factor that I feel poses the largest threat to continuing adoption velocity of Facebook advertising as a display vehicle. In most agencies today, paid search and display media teams are separate. Paid search teams tend to focus on direct response, and use bid management technologies to help scale the efforts associated with managing large campaigns. Display media teams focus on branding or direct response initiatives, using ad servers to manage the campaign implementation and optimization at a creative level, as well as to report key metrics. Agencies or advertisers that focus heavily on display, may shy away from the rather cumbersome and “different” process required by Facebook to implement ads, among existing processes for all other media vehicles they engage with.
I will note that this is certainly not a new challenge. Google wrestled with the same thing a few years back, and felt that adoption of their display network by non-search agencies was being limited by the lack of ability to serve ads on their network via ad servers. This, in part, prompted their acquisition of DoubleClick, which helped to foster such integration.
The Metrics Differ
Third are the metrics. Traditional display advertising if often judged on reach and frequency, share of voice, or desired actions taken on a destination website both as post click and view through actions. Facebook, on the other hand, is a different animal. Advertisers on Facebook have the option of whether to link to an external site or a Facebook profile. With the external site, conversion data can be captured, however, is limited to direct post click activities. View through conversions cannot be captured. If linking to a Facebook profile, the metrics change to engagement (“likes”). While reach and frequency can be common metrics, a majority of the remaining performance data capabilities differs between Facebook and traditional display, making it more challenging to compare “apples to apples” or formulate consistent goals and objectives.
A Category Unto Itself?
The fact is that Facebook advertising is not traditional display, nor is it direct response like search. While I am by no means arguing that Facebook should not be part of a digital media mix, it needs to be treated as it’s own category with well defined objectives, and thought to how its impact will be measured both in a micro environment (Facebook-specific), as well as in a more macro “how does it impact search and display” methodology.
In terms of its adoption growth, it will need to be better defined as to which segment of online marketing it falls into, from a sheer operations perspective, and I would venture to guess, this will differ from agency to agency, and advertiser to advertiser. For me right now, Facebook is paid-social advertising… a third category that has it’s own process and resource skill set, that is critical to a marketing mix from a usage perspective, but also somewhat misunderstood from a performance perspective.