Early this week, Facebook found itself in the middle of another highly politicized debate over digital marketing just days after President Trump cited a series of tweets from vp of advertising Rob Goldman as proof that Russian social media efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election played no significant role in his victory.
A subsequent conversation concerned a Wired article published last week arguing that the Trump campaign’s own paid Facebook posts were more important than any created by Russian “troll farms.”
Author Antonio García Martínez wrote that the social media giant’s ads auction, the programmatic interface through which all parties can buy individual paid placements, favored Trump’s ads to those promoting opponent Hillary Clinton because they were more likely to score big engagement numbers in terms of likes, clicks and shares. The auction pricing model offers comparatively lower prices for particularly engaging content based on the cost-per-impressions model.
The argument held that, because the Trump team was better at making “provocative content to stoke social media buzz,” their ads were more likely to appear in the timelines of voters in key swing states. It was particularly valuable real estate in the run-up to an historically close election.
Veterans of both campaigns seemed to verify this point on Twitter, with Trump digital campaign manager Brad Parscale arguing that his team paid 100 to 200 times less for the same placements and former Clinton director of communications Jennifer Palmieri adding, “Agreed.”
Amid the usual hyper-partisan finger-pointing, Andrew “Boz” Bosworth—who preceded Goldman and now serves as Facebook’s vp of VR and AR—took to Twitter in an attempt to clear up any confusion.
In the process, he touched on a topic of great importance to ad agencies and their clients: How can one achieve the 10-percent advantage earned by “good creative?” And how directly will that seemingly subjective determination affect the ultimate ROI of any given Facebook campaign?
Bosworth didn’t clarify what Facebook means by good creative, simply suggesting that the algorithms are similar to those that determine which organic posts a user is most likely to see on his or her timeline.
A company spokesperson again clarified that Bosworth’s tweets only concerned the auction before referring Adweek to a 2015 post on “relevance scores” that elaborates on the platform’s ongoing attempts to serve users with only the most pertinent ads. Those scores are “based on the positive and negative feedback we expect an ad to receive from its target audience.” Like the auctions, they reward well-targeted work by charging lower rates per impression; they also help agencies and businesses perform A/B tests to see which versions of ads get the best responses.
A 2016 post concerns goes into greater detail on what a Facebook spokesperson described as the desire to create ads that are “not just relevant, but effective, or what we might want to call ‘good,'” adding, “a lot of it is general craft stuff that everyone considers when we talk about advertising.”
“You have to test, learn and iterate,” the spokesperson said. “The best thing about a platform like ours is that you can run lots of different pieces of creative, A/B test them, and see in real time what’s working.”
In short, Facebook’s endlessly evolving creative ad business has the same goal now as it did when it was first introduced: serving ads that are most likely to get users to click, like, share and spend more time on Facebook … where they will inevitably see more ads. According to Facebook, this is true whether the paid posts are promoting a local pizza shop or a controversial political candidate.
But the process is, by nature, imperfect.
“[The] system is not always right,” the spokesperson said. “It’s a combination of creative, targeting and the efficiency of the buy.”
Facebook does assign a total value to every ad submitted as part of an auction bid, and “the ad’s quality and its relevance to the person” is one of three factors considered when calculating that number. But the company does not employ a Cannes Lions-style jury tasked with gauging the creative excellence of your client’s latest paid post.
Bosworth and Facebook’s PR team later decided to share a graph purporting to show that, contrary to Parscale’s claims, team Trump paid higher prices for auction placements than Clinton did on many days.
So the entire process remains more art than science, no matter how many times Facebook updates its algorithms.