Constant changes to major digital ad platforms have brought us to the same level of complexity as car maintenance – it’s just about impossible to work on it yourself. For people not old enough to remember when this was a thing, simpler car designs a few decades ago allowed people to maintain and replace parts on their own car if they wanted to. With the addition of computers, compact engine designs, and tons of new features, working on our own cars is a thing of the past for most of us. We mostly just take our cars to the shop and rejoice if our bill is under $1,000.
I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, but we lost an important option. Today we’re in the same situation with digital ad campaigns.
Running effective digital ad campaigns has always been a challenge for small and local businesses who didn’t have the skill, time, or experience to be consistently successful. But we’re seeing a level of change and complexity in ad platforms that I never thought possible when I first started to manage ad campaigns for clients, a few years ago.
The quickening drumbeat of Facebook and Google ad platform changes (other ad platforms as well – but we’ll focus on the two big ones) is making it impossible for most local businesses to keep up. They simply don’t have the skill, time, or staff to stay on top of best practices. Many of these businesses will create basic campaigns on their own, throw ad budget at it, get poor results, and then conclude that digital ads are a waste of money. They’ll end up abandoning an important option to drive traffic and revenue to their business.
If you’ve been experiencing this over the past few years, you’re not alone – it’s real.
The Incredible Facebook Change Machine
It’s not possible in this post to adequately describe the scale of recent change, nor do I know more than a fraction of them, but a few instances will give you insight. Let’s take Facebook as an example. Recent changes involve everything from basic ad manager user interface changes to Instagram, Stories, and Messenger ad changes, and new video and ad formatting. Restrictions making it harder to use custom audiences and what used to be free Messenger broadcasting to subscribers, along with more businesses competing for Facebook’s limited ad inventory is turning the FB marketing world upside down, and pushing ad costs up. Oh, and beware the subtraction factor – stuff that you used to be able to do with ads, is constantly being removed or modified.
And if that’s not enough, Facebook just announced upcoming major changes to it’s Business Manager and Ad Manager yet in 2019!
Could complexity be related to a trend that we’re starting to see for Facebook marketers? There are signs that marketers are beginning to look for other options. In Social Media Examiner’s 2019 survey of 4800 marketers, they concluded that:
There’s a clear indication that marketers are diversifying away from Facebook. For the first time in the last 5 years, Facebook lost share as the most important platform for marketers, dropping from 67% in 2018 to 61% in 2019. One in ten marketers indicated they’ll be decreasing their organic marketing on Facebook. Only 51% of marketers plan on increasing their Facebook organic activities, down from 62% in 2018.
…Social Media Examiner 2019 Social Media Marketing Industry Report
More New Things From Google
Google has its own issues with the fog of change. Over the last few years, they’ve had a major facelift for their Google Ads (formerly Adwords) user interface. A business who decides that they need to run an ad campaign after being dormant for a year needs to plan on spending some time getting used to the new platform before they can place a single ad. The more I use the new platform, the more I believe it’s much better and more powerful than the earlier version. Yet it’s still complex, and few businesses really know how to use some of it’s best features to their advantage.
And they’re not yet finished tweaking the platform. As I write this, they’re in the final stages of rolling out a major change to their core algorithm. Google’s focus on machine learning, e-commerce, and automated ads is likely to keep marketers busy figuring out how best to use Google Ads for the foreseeable future. To their credit, Google does employ real people support that can be reached to answer questions and help with optimization. I wish I could say that that support is always helpful, but you’ll find lots of variability in the quality of support that you get.
Ironically, many of these changes are designed to make the user experience easier. And to be fair, new regulatory and privacy requirements are at the root of some change. But to confused marketing and ad managers, it doesn’t matter what the reason is. Even those who use these platforms every day have to check release notes, and questions like “is this new?” or “what happened to the…” are commonplace.
I’m not as familiar with other ad platform changes – such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Bing, Yahoo, or Amazon – but because they exist in the competitive digital ad space, they must also innovate and change right along with the rest of the industry, or die.
The effect of all this is that local business owners and marketing managers trying to run future ad campaigns themselves have almost no chance of getting the value from their ad spend that they deserve. They won’t be able to fix or maintain their car anymore themselves – they can only drive it, buy warranties, pay for the upkeep, and hope that it doesn’t get too expensive.
So often I hear marketers say things like “oh well, really this change is not the end of the world”. For an individual change that may be true. But it’s the totality of pace, scale, and non-stop nature of changes affecting ad spend, and results, that’s the problem. It’s like boxers in round 10 – they’re at greater risk of being knocked out because of the previous nine rounds of accumulated punches absorbed.
So, What’s A Business To Do?
Local business marketing managers can’t just abandon Facebook and Google ads – they’re still the big kids on the block – and they can still help you win. But I also wouldn’t just turn my ad spend blindly over to their automated ad algorithms. Instead, it’s time for local business marketing managers to realize that they need to modify their digital marketing and ad approach. Here are a few ideas:
Be clear and disciplined about ad goals
Never has this been more important. Decide what the most important thing is that the business needs from paid digital ads. Is it branding? awareness? lead generation? education? product or service information? promotions? reengaging previous website visitors? Be specific about how to measure progress and the return on ad spend (ROAS). Goals also include setting an annual or monthly budget.
Once goals are clear, narrowly focus ad campaigns on delivering them. Be disciplined about reviewing results and tweaking levers such as keywords, ad copy, audience, location, headlines, images, video content, and bidding strategies to get better results. Inject experts into this effort. I recommend taking some of the very good courses available on Google’s site or sites like Udemy regarding managing Facebook and Google ads Participate in ad platform forums to get answers to specific questions. Another option is to hire a consultant to periodically review results and make suggestions for improvement after a few weeks of running ads.
Focus on the few
Narrow down the ad platforms to one or two, and don’t feel like you need to know how to use every feature on these platforms. Don’t know how to create Facebook carousel ads? Facebook Experiences, or know all of Google’s bidding options? Don’t stress it. Keep your approach simple, and learn new bells and whistles only if they contribute to meeting your goals. This will allow you to gain experience with platforms and specific campaign types, so that they become faster and easier to set up, and optimize. The top choices today because of their reach and cost advantages are:
- Google search ads – still my favorite because your ads are shown to people when they are looking for your services. They also can be simple to set up. Search ads can be a pricey depending on the keyword, but an optimized search campaign puts your ad in front of people who are looking to buy.
- Instagram or Messenger ads. Instagram popularity is growing rapidly and is used more often now than the Facebook native app. Messenger usage is also growing. The Facebook Ad Manager will allow you to run sponsored posts directly to the screens of targeted audiences using these apps.
- YouTube Ads – YouTube is the second most used search engine, right behind Google. Even better, video ads on YouTube are inexpensive, as YouTube is really trying to attract advertisers away from the rival Facebook video platform. It looks like a great ad bargain that’s paying dividends for its users.
- Retargeting ads – 95%+ of visitors will visit your site and take no action. Retargeting aka remarketing ads on either FB, Google or YouTube can get your products and services in front of an audience that has already expressed an interest in your products and services.
Use advanced SEO
The more people know about and find you organically, the fewer number of ads you’ll need to run. Shift some ad spend from digital ads into advanced SEO techniques that include Geo optimization, use of GMB, and Google stacks. Google stacks is a way of using Google properties such as Google site, Google drive, Google maps, GMB posts, Google maps, and calendars to help your main website appear in the local “3-box”. These techniques are incredibly powerful in terms of strengthening your organic search rankings. We’ve seen this demonstrated multiple times. Businesses that appear on the first page of Google will get the majority of the clicks. On and off-page SEO, and website content should be optimized as much as possible.
Become a brand journalist
Articles and press releases along with a social media presence make up my definition of brand journalism. Becoming a brand journalist is another way of helping your site and products and services become more easily findable, reducing the need for ads. News about your business or expert articles syndicated to authority websites throughout the web carries valuable backlinks back to the website, giving the business organic ranking juice, and establishing the businesses’ online reputation. Syndicated press releases can work quickly to create higher search rankings.
Do a website content audit. Make sure your website pages contain content of enough value to make people want to spend time on your pages, and not bounce out. These are two of Google’s most important ranking factors.
Social media is a form of brand journalism. Focus on the top one or two platforms and become active and engaging there. It’s the rare organization that can do more than 3 of these platforms well at the same time. Nor is there any need to. Become known by your followers and the groups you participate in as a helpful expert. This helps build the brand and makes it easier for people to know who you are and seek your business out when they need products and services.
Brand journalism, particularly social media, takes time to take effect, but the better you are at it, the less advertising you’ll need.
Outsource or Use Consultants
Because ad agencies are experienced at running digital ads, they’ll be more knowledgeable about the latest ad platform tricks and watchouts. Consider taking some of the uncertainty and stress of running your own campaigns by contracting with one of these experts for a specific period of time. Sure, there’s an additional cost associated with doing this, but the peace of mind and the return on the added expense should offset the costs. Find one you can trust and let them help you learn how to achieve your goals through digital ads. You can always bring ad management back in-house when you’ve learned enough to run effective campaigns.
As an ad manager, I love the power and coolness of these ad platforms, but they’re no longer as useful to the occasional ad manager. There’s no question we should expect years of new changes – some minor, and some major. Ad platforms will always have good reasons for making a change, whether it’s brought on by regulatory or technology issues, or just because they employ an army of talented engineers whose job it is to create cool new stuff. They’ve proven to us that they’re not going to stop.
This won’t be as big a deal for larger organizations with staff dedicated to ad management – although they will have to constantly be on the lookout. But for many local and smaller companies, high levels of ad platform and policy changes can threaten business growth. Don’t accept the future without trying some different things to stay on top of your own marketing game.
What ideas do you have for managing ad platform change?