Facebook ads are a bargain, but how to get the right crowd to click?

Facebook offers advice for advertisers in its "Best Practices" guide. One suggestion: "Find similar or related interests of users who may not explicitly mention your product but are interested in similar products/services, or the lifestyle or activities you are marketing."
Facebook offers advice for advertisers in its "Best Practices" guide. One suggestion: "Find similar or related interests of users who may not explicitly mention your product but are interested in similar products/services, or the lifestyle or activities you are marketing." (Nicholas Kamm - Afp/Getty Images)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 9:38 PM

I went to a dance recently. I had jitters of the first-date variety, so I fussed over what to wear. I chose colors that flattered me. I had a snappy opening line ready.

I had only one conversation - one! - during the entire evening. I made eye contact with some in the throng of 1,700, but the majority just ignored me. Good thing I had paid only a small cover charge to get in.

Okay, let's ditch the metaphor, designed to get your attention (and, yes, some sympathy).

The dance? My first foray into Facebook advertising. The colors that suited me? The image in the ad. The snappy opening line? The text, capped at 135 characters (about 25 words) by Facebook's template for those small ads that show up, seemingly at random, on the right-hand side of your Facebook page. The cover charge? The cost (a fixed amount, set by me) of a three-week ad campaign to promote the paperback edition of my recent book, timed to coincide with the holiday gift-giving season.

And the 1,700? That's the average number of times my ads appeared before even one person clicked on the link in them, which went to my Facebook author page.

If my feelings were hurt, at least my pocketbook wasn't. I paid only for each click, up to my preset budget of $260, no matter how often the ads appeared. Over the course of the campaign, my ads totaled 439 clicks on 755,205 "impressions" (appearances on pages, which cost me nothing). For those keeping score, that's a "click-through rate" (or CTR, in industry parlance) of 0.058 percent, somewhat shy of bragging-rights territory.

But amazingly, not as bad as I first thought. My CTR was about half the industry average of 0.1 percent (one click per 1,000 impressions) for banner ads, and it was slightly better than Facebook's average last year of 0.051 percent, a figure calculated by Webtrends, an online analytics firm. AdWeek, in its report on the recent Webtrends study, called Facebook's average "abysmal."

Why the lower CTR on Facebook? One prevailing theory: Facebook users come to the site with a specific purpose - to share info with friends. They aren't looking for the kind of info that ads offer, analysts say. While some users resent the intrusion, many take no notice. The ads are invisible to them.

No advertiser, online or elsewhere, wants to waste money sending a message to people who have no interest in seeing it. I saw my campaign as an experiment, an inexpensive way of dipping a toe into the digital-advertising waters.

I had read the articles about authors taking on marketing and promotion duties, everything from creating their own book tours to coming up with elaborate giveaways in hopes of boosting pre-orders and creating early buzz for the book. My efforts revolved around making a personal connection with readers, including speaking events, media interviews and Skype chats with book clubs. But I also wondered: Did advertising on social-media sites have a place in this new world order?

For an author flying solo with a small budget, there's a particular allure to online advertising, if it can be made to work. Not only are print ads expensive, especially in general publications with healthy circulations, but it's hard to know who's looking at the ad. It's conventional wisdom in the publishing industry that, with a few exceptions, print ads do not translate into enough sales to justify the cost.

In the online world, it's easier and cheaper to construct a target audience. That's the bane and the genius of Facebook and other social-media networks: They invite us to create profiles of ourselves and our lives, and we respond with a generous trail of demographic crumbs, often in greater volume than market researchers could hope to elicit through those annoying phone calls in the middle of dinner.


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