Social media advertising for side projects

videoinu authors
. published on under marketing .

Social media ads can be a lottery. It's easy to think that the big players are doing it so it must be working, but they have the scale on their sides. As it turns out, algorithm-driven advertisement platforms like Google and Facebook thrive with large amounts of ad spend, broad target audience, and a lot of effort put into designing the ad images and videos.

It's still very possible to make ads work for you with some caveats.

How do ads work?

Or more specifically, how does Facebook choose what ad to show to the user and how much it will cost to the advertiser (other platform generally work in a similar way).

Every time you see an ad on Facebook or Instagram, the ad platform actually runs an auction. Of course, not the traditional kind with an auctioneer chanting at an incomprehensible speed, but rather the even speedier kind with ads setup in Facebook's ad campaign manager competing against each other.

Determining the actual stake of each participant in the auction is a complex operation. While you it's possible to set the bid directly in the campaign manager, the total auction bid is then further augmented using many factors, like how likely the user viewing the ad will be to click on the ad and how high the ad's quality is perceived to be. auction_bid_value = bid + user_action_likelihood + ad_quality

Importantly, the cost of a single impression (showing an ad to the user) is not determined by you as the advertiser, but rather by what the auction algorithm determines you should pay. The actual algorithm Facebook uses is a modified form of Vickrey–Clarke–Groves auction, in which the cost of winning an auction is determined by the "harm" you cause to the losing participants in the auction.

See Facebook's own ad auction documentation for their description of the ad auction process.

How do I make ads work for me?

By understanding how Facebook chooses to serve ads, we can already come up with some ideas of what makes an ad succesful.

1. Design high-quality ads

Documentation on Facebook

The ad auction prioritizes higher quality ads, but that should not be the motivation to improve ad quality! Rather, high quality ads are good because the user is more likely to click them and be intrigued by them. Remember, social media users can see hundreds of ads per day, so your ad needs to stand out.

What then makes a high quality ad? There are some good examples here, but in a nutshell prefer visually engaging content over text, avoid clickbaity or spammy text copy, and get straight to the point.

2. Focus on targeting, but not too much

Documentation on Facebook

The big corporations with their near infinite ad budgets might just blast the ad to as wide an audience as possible. That is because their goal is brand awareness; they want their brand name to become a household name, and psychology-wise seeing the name constantly (including in ads) does just that.

For a sideproject this makes no sense. The primary goal is not brand awareness among the general public, but rather to have the primary target audience know of your existence and possibly entice them with an offer or a certain message. Therefore, it's important to have the targeted audience to be more specific than "everyone in the US" or "everyone under 65 years". You wouldn't want a grandma to wonder what's this "fidgetspinner customization platform" that you're trying to sell.

However, this advice comes with a note of warning. Don't make your audience too small! Facebook constantly learns and optimizes who will see your ad based on its past performance and audience characteristics. Therefore, too small of an audience will just make the ad delivery (how consistently your ad budget will be spent) suffer and slows down the learning and thus advertising process.

3. Let the algorithm learn

Documentation on Facebook

The auction estimates the likelihood of user interaction with the ad by using historical data it has learned from the previous ad impressions. When you first publish your ad, Facebook can't know the exact target audience that would be interested in it, so the algorithm does its best to scope the audience with trial and error. Ad undergoing this process is said to be in the "learning phase" and it's important to guarantee that the ad will have as optimized delivery as possible. For this reason, the worst thing you can do to an ad is to constantly edit its parameters, interrupting the learning process.

As a rule of thumb, if you have a high quality ad and decent targeting, let it run for a period of time (over a week preferably) and only then draw judgments about its performance.

4. Have a big enough budget

Documentation on Facebook

This is the unfortunate but necessary point; the ad budget needs to be large enough for advertisement to be effective. As established, Facebook learns from previous impressions and how they did with different users. Therefore, you should make sure you put in enough budget to at least get past the learning phase. These methods may come in handy in case you're wondering whether this is happening in your case.

What about other platforms?

Facebook is only in such a major role in this article because of my own experiences with it. It might definitely be worth trying out other platforms too, especially if you can cater to more specific audiences that way. For instance, advertising on Reddit might be very lucrative due to the ability to target specific subreddits for highly specialized audiences. Since ad auctions are a competition between the advertisers, having less competition might also mean cheaper advertisements.