Advertising on Facebook – is it really pointless?

Facebook now has 350m users – and there’s no point advertising to them,” said John Naughton in last Sunday’s Observer (or possibly that’s what his sub-editor said, but in any case it’s a pretty accurate summation). What’s more, he had some numbers to back him up:

In 2007, the market research firm ComScore reported that 32% of internet users clicked on banner ads in a given month. By 2009, that number had fallen to 16%. ComScore also concluded that a hard core of 8% of all internet users – christened “Natural Born Clickers” – are responsible for 85% of all banner clicks on the web.

His basic argument: that because we are all now so adept at ignoring online advertising, Facebook and Twitter are deluded if they think that selling advertising can keep them afloat in anything but the short term; Twitter and Facebook are not effective advertising spaces.


Leaving aside that 16% – or even 8% – of 350 million is still a considerable audience*, and also leaving Twitter to one side (for now), since details on how it will eventually incorporate advertising are still thin on the ground, do the figures above prove that Facebook is necessarily any less effective a medium for advertising than any of the more traditional media, such as TV or print?

I would argue that they don’t: all they show is that the majority of internet users aren’t clicking on ads – and why would they?

I mean, if you could click on a TV ad, or a newspaper ad, would you? I certainly wouldn’t very often. Just as with online ads, there would first need to be a fairly real chance that I might gain in some way, or the product being advertised would have to be in an area in which I’m particularly interested (for instance, a new model of mobile phone when I happen to be due an upgrade).

Moreover, why assume that clicks are the sole measure of whether an online ad is effective?

Many of us routinely try to ignore any kind of advertising, wherever it appears. But even offline it’s everywhere, and at least some of what we see still lodges itself in the brain – either by being very entertaining, highly unusual, very annoying, or just unavoidably prevalent. That its effect isn’t instantly measurable in the form of a click doesn’t, though, lead us to assume it hasn’t fulfilled some purpose – improving brand recognition, for instance. So why should we assume this of online advertising?

Is Naughton, then, perhaps confusing what an online ad can do with what it should do? (And no doubt some advertisers too).

What do I mean? Well, just because an ad is online, and clickable, does that mean that it has to be clicked on to be effective? Has it totally failed if it hasn’t taken its viewer to a virtual cash register or to more information? This seems to be his assumption.

If this were true, though, there would be little point advertising anywhere – offline, or on Facebook. That online advertising can be clicked on, and linked directly to online stores, is surely a bonus over offline advertising, not necessarily its be-all and end-all. (Or perhaps that’s how it should be seen).

What the apparent reluctance to click shown by the ComScore figures suggests to me, then, is: either a) a lot of online advertising could be much, much better; or b) most internet users simply don’t want to click on ads – and if so, then perhaps advertisers need to find out why, or just accept it and reassess their expectations, their methods, and their measures of effectiveness. In fact, whatever the case, perhaps a lot of marketing departments simply haven’t yet figured out the best ways to utilise Facebook, or the online space in general?

Any of them wondering where to start might want to study Dell’s use of Twitter: according to Monday’s Guardian, Dell has “made $6.5m in revenues through links on the micro-messaging site” and “its aggregated followers on social media… now number 3.5 million.” Dell’s senior manager for corporate affairs also points out that this kind of engagement with its customers delivers other benefits too, such as helping Dell improve its products and respond quickly to problems.

Agreed, this is marketing, rather than advertising, as such, but surely there are still lessons to be learned here – primarily that consumers aren’t going to click on just anything without a very good reason.

So maybe the Observer headline should have read: “Facebook has 350m users – and there’s no point advertising to them badly. Same as any other medium, really…” It wouldn’t have been as snappy, I grant you, but it at least might have been the more accurate and workable conclusion.

To an extent, I’ve been playing devil’s advocate in this post. Your opinions welcomed in the usual box…

*because, for the most part, that’s probably an over-simplification: with one of the main advantages of advertising on Facebook being that ads can be more specifically targeted, many ads won’t be seen by anything like 350m subscribers.

More posts you might like…

10 things I learned about B2B content marketing in 2020

Radix's new marketing manager shares ten useful lessons, learned by diving into the deep end of B2B content during a global pandemic.
public sector figures

Writing for the public sector? Follow these six tips from sector experts

The public sector has its own priorities, challenges, motivations and language. Generic B2B content won't work for this extraordinary audience, so we gathered six tips from experts in the sector.

Make your writing more effective

Get copywriting tips and advice — direct to your inbox every month: