Thinking of Running a Facebook Ad? Proceed with Caution

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Today’s guest post is from Martha Conway (@marthamconway), award-winning author of Thieving Forest and Sugarland.


For the past year or so, I have been hearing about the effectiveness of Facebook ads around the social media water cooler. As an author with three novels published and a new one scheduled to be released next year, I try to get the word out about my work as much as possible.

I’ve tried Amazon ads and Google ads with very limited success (neither one paid out, but they increased awareness of my books—I hope). The conventional wisdom in book publishing is that ads aren’t an effective way to increase sales unless the author is mega-successful already, and my experience with Amazon and Google advertising seemed to confirm that.

However, I couldn’t ignore the many people I respected who seemed to think Facebook ads were worthwhile. And I told myself that perhaps the Facebook platform was more controlled, and possibly more targeted, than Google. So I took the plunge.

Wow. What a roller coaster ride. I went from thinking This is the greatest piece of promotion I’ve ever done to thinking I might as well have burned that fifty dollars in my backyard Weber.

It wasn’t all bad, because I figured out where I went wrong after a few days and adjusted my ad settings. But if it weren’t for my husband, who works in the advertising industry, I probably never would have figured it out.

Facebook adTo start with, I’ll go through how I set up my ad campaign—an ad for my latest novel, Sugarland. After that I’ll pinpoint where I went wrong, so others can avoid the same mistake.

Facebook is pretty good at walking newbies through the process of setting up an ad campaign. Once I selected “Create Ad,” I was immediately taken to a page that asked, “What’s Your Marketing Objective?” I chose “Send people to your website” (i.e., the Sugarland page on Amazon).

Then I created a custom audience, trying to make it as specific as possible, which I had read was good practice. I targeted an audience who was in and around the Chicago area, as my novel takes place in Chicago, 1921. I limited it to women (who generally buy more novels, especially historical novels); I set the age from early twenties and up; and I targeted those with interest in mysteries, literature, fiction, jazz music, reading ebooks, and a few other interests and behaviors.

I also set my daily budget and set a schedule for seven days.

So far, so good. But there was one more step in the Facebook campaign specs process: to choose my ad’s “Placement.” Here is where things went seriously wrong.

As you can see by this graphic—a screenshot of the “Ad Set” page where you set your preferences—Facebook really encourages you to select the “Automatic Placements” choice.

Facebook Ad Placements selection screen

Not only is it specifically recommended, but there is also a kind of advertisement for it right in the category box (“New! Automatic Placements”). The description sounds good: “Your ads will automatically be shown to your audience in the places they’re likely to perform best” and “We’ll optimize delivery to show your ads to your audience in the best-performing places.” So I selected that option.

It turned out that this was the wrong move, but more on that later.

On the next screen I uploaded an image for the ad, wrote the headline and a few words of text, and I was good to go.

The first day and a half was exhilarating. Almost immediately I was getting a far greater number of clicks (users who clicked on my ad and were taken to the Amazon book purchase page) than I believed possible. The ad went live late on the evening of September 5, and on September 6, the first full day of advertising, I received 166 clicks in one day. To give you some context, most of my Amazon or Google ads received only about 100 clicks over the course of one week.

Not only was the number of actual clicks enormous, but the click-through rate (i.e., clicks divided by impressions) was 5.34 percent, whereas my ads on Amazon or Google typically had click-through rates of 0.46 percent. Here the Facebook click-through rate was over ten times higher—to industry experts this would be a red flag, but I just thought it was great.

Checking my Kindle sales page for that day, however, I saw that, for all those clicks, I had sold only two books. Not great, but the ad campaign had just begun.

On September 7 my ad received 157 clicks, and on September 8 it got 172 clicks. Of course, each of those clicks cost me money (approximately $0.12 per click), but hopefully they resulted in some sales. If these ads performed as well as Amazon ads (and Amazon is able to calculate approximate sales their ad campaigns generate), I would expect at least five book sales each day.

But I didn’t get that. Nothing like it. Although in August Sugarland had been selling something like two or three books per day, by some fluke of circumstances there were zero sales on September 7 and September 8. Not a one.

Sugarland KDP sales

I had been crowing to my husband about all the clicks I had been getting (500 by the end of day three!), and at first I rationalized the lack of sales—they just hadn’t shown up yet on my sales page for some reason. But by the end of day three I admitted that, as remarkable as all this activity was, it hadn’t resulted in any real purchases. My husband and I took a look at my “Ad Management” page on Facebook, and after some digging he figured out that most of my ads, and the resulting clicks, were showing up on something called “Audience Network.” Neither one of us knew what that meant.

Facebook Ad Management showing reach

To make a long story short, as we dug further, we realized that Facebook was showing my ad primarily on mobile devices. According to my husband, mobile devices have a much higher click rate while not delivering equally high purchase rates. There are a lot of guesses as to why. One possibility is that because of mobile devices’ small spaces, fingers slip and click when they don’t mean to. (I’ve certainly done that.)

But the other possibility is a bit more ominous. Some games on mobile devices use something called “incentivized ads.” An incentivized ad is when a user has an incentive to click on an ad because in doing so they will get something in the game they are playing—a cloak that allows a character to fly, a weapon, a cool piece of armor.

Incentivized ads are generally frowned upon by companies such as Facebook, and they most likely have a policy against them, but apparently these kinds of ads are hard to trace back. Most companies, Facebook included, will sell my ad to another party who will place it on some platform; or the second party might even sell it a third time to someone else. When my ad is finally placed on a device where a user can see it, it may be a long way from where I initially set it up.

And here I was thinking that my ad would only be seen on Facebook pages! Not so. My ad could be placed anywhere, on any device, on any page, where a pair of human eyes might see it. That is, unless I specify Facebook as the only platform used for my ad.

After we figured this out, I changed my settings in the “Ad Management” page to exclude mobile devices and specify only Facebook.  Remember the “Automatic Placements” that Facebook recommends you select? Don’t select it! Here is what you do instead:

Facebook Edit Placements selection

As you are setting up your ad specs, go to the “Ad Placement” selection. Under devices, choose “Desktop Only,” which renders the Instagram and “Audience Network” platforms ineligible. Alternatively, you could stay with “All Devices,” but then unselect “Audience Network.”

Facebook Edit Placement selection

Once I did this, the click rate aligned with Amazon and Google ad click rates—about twenty clicks per day. Although I sold a book or two, the end results were not discernibly better than my Google or Amazon ads. However, the education was invaluable.

Martha Conway (@marthamconway), award-winning author of Thieving Forest and Sugarland writes: "Wow. What a roller coaster ride. I went from thinking This is the greatest piece of promotion I’ve ever done to thinking I might as well have burned that fifty dollars in my backyard Weber. It wasn’t all bad, but if it weren’t for my husband, who works in the advertising industry, I probably never would have figured it out."

Posted in Guest Post, Marketing & Promotion and tagged , , , , .

Martha Conway

Martha Conway is the author of Thieving Forest, which won the North American Book Award in historical fiction, and 12 Bliss Street, which was nominated for an Edgar Award. She teaches creative writing for Stanford University's Continuing Studies Program, and will co-lead a publishing workshop with Holly Brady at Stanford this fall. Her latest novel is Sugarland.

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68 Comments on "Thinking of Running a Facebook Ad? Proceed with Caution"

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Teagan Kearney

Thanks so much for sharing your experience, as it explains why I had such a poor response when I tried the Fb ad route. Maybe next time I’ll have a better result.

Jackie Gammon

I too ran a couple of shirt term ads(I own a small bike shop) and saw clicks on the ad immediately, However, the long term result was even though I ran ads and saw an increase of clicks to the ad/shop page… it created NO email/FB contacts, phone calls or shop visits. And unlike you, I never figured out why.. thank you for the heads up! I doubt that I’ll run an ad again, but always good to know why it might have failed so miserably!

paula cappa

So, Martha, would you say the Facebook ads, done as you recommend to use Desktop only feature, are worth it for sales? Can you give us the return on investment? Or do you think the exposure is still worthy?

Chris Syme

Thanks for sharing your case study Martha. Facebook ads definitely are not for the faint of heart. There is a steep learning curve, but thankfully not insurmountable. As a book marketer I still recommend both desktop and mobile ads for authors as many people have one-click shopping on Amazon and iBooks and the clunky experience of buying online isn’t as daunting for books as it is for a Nordstrom or Best Buy.

Lynne Spreen

Jeez, what a great education! And luckily so very timely for me. I was planning to do Amazon and FB ads about a month from now. You just saved my checkbook from the backyard bbq. Thanks so very much. Shared this everywhere.

Richard
There is convincing evidence from surveys I found on the internet that social media sites like FaceBook and Twitter delivers lots of hits but very little sales. I can share this evidence if people show interest. However, my question is more directed towards book marketing services like BookBub or KindleBookPromotions. I can testify to the latter since I tried it and the stats they provide on their page at http://www.kindlebookpromotions.com/superseller.html was exactly right. Advertising on Amazon did cost be over $20 per sale, and Google over $40 per sale, and using KindleBookPromotions I got $5 of adverting cost per sale.… Read more »
Jane Friedman

Hi Richard: If you run a search for author case studies or experiences with BookBub, you’ll find many valuable posts. As a general rule, most authors find that BookBub ads are the most valuable form of advertising, but it can be tough to get accepted by them for promotion.

Sarah

Richard, what is the price of your book, both paper and digital? Knowing that the only way to analyze the return on investment. Using your numbers, cost-to-sale, my latest novel retails at $19.95 (paper) and $3.99 (digital). For me, advertising on Amazon or Google is cost-prohibitive. Did I read your post correctly?

Marie Fricker

Richard, I’m a novice at being an author, and maybe I’m just being dense, but the kindle chart says that if your book is priced at $2.99 on Kindle, it will cost you $7 per sale. Doesn’t that mean that you would be losing $4.01 on every sale made?

Frances Caballo

Martha: It’s so great to see you on Jane’s blog. I enjoyed your post and understand how frustrating Facebook ads can be. I think they can be effective but it takes time to learn how to hone your audience, as you mentioned. Both Mark Dawson and Andrea Vahl offer courses on Facebook advertising. I commend you for trying it on your own. I know that I’ve had mixed results, but for some people Facebook ads are important to their marketing.

John H. Matthews
Thanks for the great article! I’ve been running Facebook ads for my latest novel, Designated Survivor, since it was released on April 1st. With an initial ad budget of $5 per day I needed to only sell 2 books per day to cover the ads. For most of several months I would sell 1-5 copies a day, resulting in a monthly average that paid for the ads plus a little left over. On September 1st I was seeing higher sales for a few days, 3-8 per day, so I decided to try and bump my budget. I went to $10… Read more »
Jack Volante

Wow, that is some fantastic insight, Martha. That’ll help me plan my future Ads. Much appreciated.

Cathey Nickell

Great info, thanks!

Kimmery Martin

Is anyone aware of a way to exclude your own FB friends from the targeted audience? I’m not selling anything–I have a book review website–but I paid for an ad to see if it could generate any new subscribers. My friends all saw it, and that seemed like a waste of money since they are already aware of it. My ad had a high click-through rate, although it did not correlate with the number of actual clicks on the website as recorded by Google Analytics.

Dolly

Great, informative story. Thank you. Any feelings on if “boosts” of posts or pages on Facebook are worth it?

Jane Friedman

The conventional wisdom is that boosts are best applied to articles/posts that ultimately direct people to an important call to action. E.g., I might boost a post that is a piece of content marketing for a book newly available, a course, a consulting package, etc. Otherwise, you can waste a lot of money “boosting.”

Bill Cokas

Wow, scary and enlightening, Martha! Curious, why would you opt out of mobile devices if you un-check Audience Network? Wouldn’t that be missing a huge swath of Facebook users?

James - @WriteMyEssay

Great share, I’ll definitely integrate this one on my facebook pixelcode marketing campaign. I have been researching piece like this about facebook ads because since Google updates their PPC way, I also assume that Facebook features/interface about running an ad has changed as well.

Diane Lee

Martha, I’ve run Facebook ads a couple of times for book launches, and like you I was super pleased with the number of clicks I received, and then super disappointed with the poor number of downloads, even for free books. The numbers didn’t correlate. Now I know why! Thank you for taking the time to write this post and explaining where we’re going wrong. At this point, I’m revising my strategy and use FB ads for awareness raising rather than sales.

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[…] Thinking of Running a Facebook Ad? Proceed with Caution (Jane Friedman) For the past year or so, I have been hearing about the effectiveness of Facebook ads around the social media water cooler. As an author with three novels published and a new one scheduled to be released next year, I try to get the word out about my work as much as possible. […]

Rachelle Gardner
This is a great cautionary tale. In my opinion, this isn’t the right approach to Facebook advertising for authors. From the social media studying I’ve been doing, I’d never advise FB advertising with the goal of SELLING BOOKS. Yes, that’s the end goal. But the most important thing in using social media to sell is taking prospective customers through a SALES FUNNEL. We shouldn’t expect to run an ad and immediately sell a bunch of books. The “landing page” on the website shouldn’t be a sales page for a book, but it should give people the opportunity to browse around,… Read more »
borgus
There is also a thing called “Click Farms” mostly in India where a bunch of people are clicking on links for money. In order to keep from getting caught, they also have to click on other random links (including yours). It means you’re getting a bunch of impressions and clicks from people who never really cared about your ad in the first place. It gets worse when they subscribe to your Facebook page, because those subscriptions are sitting ducks. They won’t ever interact with your content again and will screw up the aggregation process when your trying to get views… Read more »
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[…] Martha Conway: Thinking of Running a Facebook Ad? Proceed with Caution  […]

Jurgen Wolff
Thanks. I think the proliferation of free books, given in hopes that if you like an author’s free book you’ll pay for their next one, is swamping the market and making it harder to get readers to pay for a book by an unknown author. The ‘sales funnel’ strategy is get people to give you their email by giving something away, then sell them a good low-price item, then sell them a high-price item that has a profit margin big enough to justify all that effort. It’s not ideal for authors, since we don’t have any high-price items. The search… Read more »
Alex Marsh
This is fascinating – especially as I was in the early stages of writing up a very similar analysis. Which very much backs up what you say, and builds on it a little. My publisher very kindly slipped me some small funds to use as a testbed, so I’ve been able to experiment with all sorts of different options and ad copy approaches – one of the main differences is that I was using a video ad, which allows you to monitor from FB whether ad ‘viewers’ have actually *watched* a certain percentage of it (you can see the ad… Read more »
Christy Johnson

Nice, Alex. Did you use Fiverr or someone else to create your ad? I’d love to hear the progress of your ad. Keep us posted.

Diana Stevan

Great post, Martha. Thanks for sharing. I’ve used Facebook Ads a few times but like you, have not been impressed with the results. What frustrates me more than anything is the time spent trying to figure all this out, when I’m much rather be writing. Oh well, it’s now a big part of being an author. Onward! 🙂

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[…] Thinking of Running a Facebook Ad? Proceed with Caution | Jane Friedman […]

Andrea Domanski
Well, you hit the nail on the head. Facebook advertising can be a disaster if not done correctly. It isn’t something that you want to just “try out” without doing some real research because, as you noted, small mistakes can destroy a campaign. Just in your description of how you set up your ad, it was obvious that you hadn’t done the proper research. Don’t fret, though. Many people do the same thing and, of course, get the same results. My only concern is with your post. Someone who has studied FB advertising will see clearly that you are a… Read more »
Jane Friedman

My concern is that most authors I meet are just like Martha, and hear that Facebook advertising works and decide to try it. Even with study and research, writers tend to struggle with how to create and manage effective advertising, regardless of platform.

Andrea Domanski

I agree that many/most people jump into FB ads without the necessary knowledge and have the same experience laid out in this post. My problem with this post is that it doesn’t mention that the person who had this experience jumped in without the necessary knowledge. I’m not a fan of blanket statements. Perhaps just changing the title to “Thinking of Running a Facebook Ad? Don’t Make the Same Mistakes I Did.”

Amelia

Hey, Martha! 🙂 Thank you for sharing this. I’ve always struggled with Facebook Ads and I never considered the placement of the ads and the fact that people accidentally click on ads as they scroll through. Hopefully, I’ll have better results next time. xx

Mike

My results were quite similar, (read lousy), only I didn’t have the sense to adjust settings. Lesson learned for $86 – Probably don’t advertise on FB.

Larry Nocella

Thank you for this info. I’ve tried many of the ad platforms – I haven’t had much luck. Your article is very well-detailed. I’m not convinced the ads are worthwhile. I’ve had better luck targeting specifically reader-geared newsletters and sites. Thanks again, Ms. Conway!

Kate Supino

This was such an insightful piece, Martha. Thanks so much for sharing.

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[…] has many different avenues. Martha Conway warns us of pitfalls with Facebook ads, Anne R. Allen examines the new Amazon review policy for author red flags, and Jane Friedman shares […]

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[…] also always trying to learn more about social media, so I’m grateful for “Thinking of Running a Facebook Ad? Proceed with Caution,” a post by Martha Conway on Jane Friedman’s site (check the comments, […]

Ellen K.Bennett

Thanks so much for this insightful piece. I am glad to know that I am not alone in my struggle to get my books into people’s hands and onto their tablets!

Ben Taylor

Thanks a lot Martha! If i had not read this article I would not have figured out what’s wrong with my facebook ad campaign. Keep on writing!

marvin

I always looked for posts like this that can empower me in experimenting Facebook ads and how can I make some of it. Thanks for this!

Michelle Hughes

Thanks Martha, you just save me money! I was considering running facebook ads for my books and now I think I’ll just skip that.

Michelle Hughes

Saved me money… couldn’t find a way to edit LOL

Fabulous Author
I really appreciate this article. I write non-fiction books and found that even with careful targeting it cost me $2 a click! Of course, there is a learning curve, but it might still not work for you. There are people who specialize in Facebook ads, with very high budgets, and they acknowledge it is very hard to make it all work. I have seen Mark Dawson’s free videos and was inspired. However, I think it is important to look at what he does. He targets people who like specific authors. That is a very precise target. He also has a… Read more »
Shannon

Thank you! I knew about some of this but never thought about switching platform from mobile to desktop! Urghh… I still use Facebook after reading success stories from other authors and folks like Mark Dawson who sing its praises. Never yields big returns for me though.

Alex Dook
I don’t want to be harsh, but I read this post a while ago and it’s actually been nagging at me for a while. There may have been problems with your ad placement, but I’d go further and suggest that the bigger problem is with the ad itself. There’s nothing on the ad that actually encourages a browser to click through. There’s no incentive to click on anything, which is why your clicks went right down after the placement was changed. There’s no hook in the ad at all – the Amazon blurb made the book sound great, but this… Read more »
Helen

Really useful and informative article. Thank you. You’ve done the hard work for those of us thinking of going down the same track. Proceed with caution seems to be the moral of the story.

Helen

Hence the title of the post.

M.H. Yearwood

Thanks for this Martha! Appreciate it!

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[…] Thinking of Running a Facebook Ad? Proceed with Caution by Martha Conway on Jane Friedman’s blog. […]