Facebook Advertising Has Totally Sucked for Small eCommerce Companies During the US Elections

As a small business owner, I am used to getting periodically shafted, especially by the big monopolistic tech companies that are the gatekeepers to my customers (try contacting customer service for any of them on the business side, and you’ll instantly know what I mean). Other small business owners may well identify with this love-hate relationship I have with Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

Especially Facebook.

Let’s be honest. I couldn’t exist without Facebook. Without Facebook, I would be a business without customers. So, I love Facebook. And yet, my frustrations with the company and its service continue to grow and grow.

To start with, the advertising configuration options they offer are so clearly lacking some basic features that you’re left scratching your head – until you realize they must be intentionally doing so to maximize their revenues. And of course, their algorithms are so much of a black box, you have absolutely no idea what’s actually going on.

Nothing made that clearer to me than this current election period.

I publish personalized children’s books at Manimal Tales. One of the best-selling titles is the Orangey-Tan, a children’s book that parodies our current U.S. President. (It’s actually a sweet story that talks about standing up against injustice and peacefully protesting for what you believe in, but that’s another story).

In terms of advertising, I naturally target a political/liberal audience. I’ve only been in business for a few months, and until last month, Facebook was pretty good to me.

But then, midway through October, the floor just collapsed.

Where previously I was getting anywhere between a 2-3 times return on my advertising spend (meaning for every $1 in advertising, I was generating $2-$3 in sales), things suddenly started trending downwards. I was still spending the same amounts of money, still targeting the same audiences with the same ads that had been working before.

But now they just weren’t.

 

The numbers above tell the tale. In the second half of October, I got half as many purchases, even though I spent the same amount of money. On the same ads that I had been running earlier!

There were days I was spending $300-$400 in advertising and getting $100 in sales – until I eventually had to just shut it off. Even I know that losing money day after day is not a sustainable proposition.

I was desperate, dejected, and feeling like my business was a failure. I tried everything: finding new audiences creating new ads; increasing my bid prices; even just increasing my budget. Nothing worked. In desperation, I even tried contacting Facebook customer service (you can guess how that went!). I even googled and didn’t find anything.

The only place I did find any information was on Reddit. Turns out I wasn’t alone. Lots of people were having the same problem.

Conspiracy theories abounded (naturally, it’s Reddit!). Some said the algorithm had been modified and “was out of whack”, and since it’s now its own beast that nobody quite understands, that was that. Still others suggested that because of Covid, a lot more brands were advertising online (since that’s where all the shopping was), and in the lead-up to the all-important Christmas season, small brands were getting priced out by the deluge of spending coming from larger brands.

Most though seemed to share the belief that it was the elections.

Obviously, candidates, parties, and special interest groups were pouring money into advertising. That was clearly and obviously true. Below is a list of the Top 20 advertisers on Facebook for the month of October (FB has started releasing this data in response to the 2016 election issues). Outside of FB owned properties, it is all political spend and staggering amounts of it (roughly $100MM spent by 17 politically affiliated groups). Small business owners can’t compete with that kind of cash, particularly if they’re trying to target the same users.

 

 

Facebook’s own attention and resources are completely focused on ensuring that the election runs smoothly and interference-free. While it’s impossible to know how much, it is bound to have an impact on ad performance. (If nothing else, good luck getting customer support!).

They have also been very heavy-handed in shutting down suspicious accounts and campaigns – and very slow in re-instating them. My own account got shut down for three days of “suspicious activity” – which was really me just late-night-panicking when my ads weren’t working and making a slew of changes to see if anything could work.

Thanks so much, Facebook!

What really gets my goat is that Facebook is really screwing its small business customers.

Most small businesses are not sophisticated advertisers and will typically just create Facebook ads using FB’s recommended default settings – which typically have no restrictions. As a result, these poor saps (myself included) continue spending their full budget even though their Facebook ad performance may be suffering horribly.

Facebook will keep delivering impressions and charge you accordingly: what you have no real way of knowing is that the quality of impressions being delivered suck big time.  

Sophisticated, big-budget advertisers are more likely to use more granular cost or return-based controls (some of which aren’t even available to small advertisers!) that at least ensure Facebook doesn’t spend your money unless they’re sure you can get a return.

Worse, because you are a naïve small business, your first instinct when faced with inexplicable drops in ad performance, is to either:

  1. double down (and spend more) or
  2. start experimenting with a whole bunch of different options (and hence spend more).

You see the common thread here? Facebook’s the casino, and the house always wins.

What irks me more than anything else is the fact that this is not being reported on at all. Facebook itself denies anything is wrong. Customer service responses (based on anecdotal information from Reddit users lucky enough to get through) have ranged from platitudes like “October is always a slow month” to outright disavowals like “the platform is fine; you need to check your ad settings and targeting”. Mainstream media outlets – and even blogs – have barely a whisper about this.

Maybe it’s so self-evident to others that no one feels the need to say anything? If so, why are there so many Reddit users crying about lowered ad performance? How many other naïve small businesses are suffering without realizing it’s absolutely not their fault? I am not claiming god-like intuitiveness, but the whole thing stinks to high heaven, and I do have a nose that works.

Chalk this up as one more reason I can’t wait for the elections to be over.

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