Social Performance Marketing, as We Once Knew it, is Dead [An Open Letter]

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By Avi Ben-Zvi, VP, Paid Social at Tinuiti

It’s one of the most known philosophical, anthropological, biological concepts in our world: “survival of the fittest.” Over the past few decades, the business world has reappropriated the term for its own benefit and funny enough, I find myself doing that here today. Most recently, the evolving social marketing space since the proliferation of privacy and the crackdown of social networks knowing anything about anyone, has me thinking of Charles Darwin’s words from The Origin of Species:

“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

That last part really gets you, doesn’t it? From the Moneyball scene where Billy Beane haphazardly starts trading players and assets for stats, to F100’s trying to enter the new millennium with an overhaul of systems and processes that synergize appropriately with the rising popularity of the internet. Today, that “adapt or die” mantra really rings true to me.

I was inspired to write this because, for many performance marketers, the social space feels like doom and gloom today. However, I think the changes to the space are actually exciting, affording these same advertisers new opportunities to evolve their programs in a way that is truly unique to social and when I look back at what social marketing used to be vs. what it is today, I see vastly different industries and principles that guide that industry.

So many companies built their best-in-class “social performance” programs off the back of unparalleled insights and hyper-defined audience targeting from Facebook. A brand could use Facebook Audience Insights to understand more about their offline CRM list or understand the overlap between CRMs and lookalikes, track a user within 28 days of an impression, build hyper-targeted segments that drive wild returns and meaningfully adjust budgets/bids to alleviate CAC increases. Remember that? But today that’s a far cry from how we operate and more so, if you try to operate in that manner you’re only setting yourself up for failure. Instead, clients have to adapt to a world of trickier attribution and ill-defined targeting but that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant ways to take advantage of social.

Where Does Social Performance Marketing Stand Today?

One of the most common tropes I hear from our clients and even more so prospective clients, is: you know, my Facebook performance just isn’t what it used to be. In 2019-2020 we were able to achieve an X ROAS and today it’s easily half that! The problem with this statement is that the underpinning is a belief that they can get back to the performance of yesteryear, all while everything around them has changed:

  • Cambridge Analytica opened the dialogue around what Facebook knows
  • Audience Insights capabilities and CRM match rates declined
  • iOS 14.5 and ATT prompts made it harder to directly attribute success to FB media
  • Rising costs YoY since 2017 (minus 2020 when COVID and boycotts briefly reduced costs on Meta)

What worked in the past is probably not going to work again because those capabilities are not available anymore. In fact, if you try to mimic the past you’re more likely to harm your campaigns than help them. The reason for that is these types of intraday, micro-changes, have little impact because they have fewer signals to pull from, while also increasing “learning phase” media (also something that wasn’t around in the wild west of social). And for that latter piece, “learning phase” has become a buzzword (or trigger, really) that equates to higher costs for advertisers:

And yet here we are: advertisers chasing their tails trying to achieve something that isn’t even possible, even if they know that’s true.

What I want advertisers to know is you can still build meaningful and impactful social campaigns that drive significant business value and sales. But trying to achieve in-platform or last-click performance metrics with the strategies we used to hold as the gold standard is not a feasible solution in this post-privacy world.

So, Where Do We Go From Here?

There are so many ways to pivot; in fact, now is the time performance advertisers can be more nimble, creative, and exciting than ever before. But before we get there, here’s how some of those performance elements have shifted:

Old: Hyper defined audience targeting with many ad sets and constant Lookalike creations/tier changes

New: Broader audiences with limited number of ad sets to reduce overlap

Old: Manual bidding with frequent intraday adjustments

New: Auto bidding with some nuanced bid type testing

Old: Multiple creative uploads and pauses per day to maintain efficiency

New: Methodical creative testing approach with enough time to “get out” of learning phase

Old: Figure out ways to “beat” the algorithm

New: Not possible anymore and need to “lean into” the algorithm instead

These are only a few but important, mentality shifts for performance marketers to understand.

Now comes the fun part. There’s a lot advertisers can do to “win” with social and truly win in a bigger way than ever before. At Tinuiti, we marry these ideas with measurement that looks at the “business impact” of social campaigns, alongside platform metrics.

There are several ways in which we achieve this type of measurement/insight. Two examples are halo analyses or incrementally tests our Data Science team conducts:

The halo effect is observed when spend in a marketing campaign or channel positively impacts the performance of a separate set of campaigns or channels. This type of analysis is typically used to evaluate the impact of upper-funnel marketing tactics. For example, if a client launches a streaming campaign and we start to measure a large boost in paid search clicks or conversions, we’d infer that this streaming campaign is exerting a halo effect on paid search.

Incrementally testing measures the lift in a desired outcome (e.g. revenue, leads, sign-ups) that a specific channel, campaign, tactic or other factor brings in above native demand.

Activating on channels looks different. One line from a recent report from Edgewater Research stuck with me as we think about the new social paradigm:

Brands willing to lean in blind to Facebook are doing better. A big eCommerce brand wasn’t seeing many sales over Black Friday, then we cranked up the spend as a test and boom, sales flooded in. Brands need to take a long-term view and look beyond CPC/CPA.

Don’t Limit Your Creativity in the Social Space [Tips for Engagement]

You can still do “performance marketing” to a certain extent: optimize to CPA/CAC/ROAS, find audiences that work, use sales-forward creative, etc. But you shouldn’t limit yourself there. There are so many creative ways to engage users on social platforms that will lead to sales, whether or not you’re capturing that attribution with the old measurement methodology. The time is now to take advantage and below are a few tips to do just that.

AR IS HIGHLY UNDERUTILIZED TODAY

It’s shocking how many brands are ignoring this. Shopify released recent data that users are 94% more likely to convert after engaging with a brand in an AR capacity. That’s a whole lot of consideration you’re building!

Snap is really leading the way here: their lenses are best-in-class and are really integrating into the platform with a commerce-forward approach. TikTok and Meta have tons of capabilities here too. The theme: engage your users at a deeper level and you’ll be rewarded for it.

TIKTOK IS A MUST PLAY

Yes, TikTok is blowin’ up but performance marketers are still treating it as a direct response channel with DR-only objectives. That’s like going to a renowned steakhouse and ordering a salad as your entree. You’re missing out on what is truly so powerful about the platform by being so limiting.

The ads that we see do really well on TikTok have one thing in common: they entertain you. When you focus purely on a sales/my product benefit angle, you lose the attention of a user who’s on TikTok to have fun. Play around with Branded Effects (AR again), try out “Super Likes” as a playful element or even toying around with live capabilities when you have an influencer who can really entertain with your brand. TikTok can drive some meaningful evangelism for your brand, which will ultimately lead to better sales.

CONTEXTUALIZE

A lot of pixel signals are harder to define but contextual targeting can be a powerful play. Reddit excels here with a highly engaged, loyal userbase that has self-selected their true interests through the subreddits they follow.

Beyond that Reddit offers some cool capabilities at reasonable costs. With Category Takeovers you can target a theme of subreddits for 24 hours and be the top ad in said subreddits. The cost ranges from $5k-$20k, a far cry from the usual “reservation costs” you hear about. The results are emphatically good and it gives you a canvas to really impact users in a smart way. One of our ecommerce brands launched a Category Takeover for one day and they saw a 58% increase in efficiency for their standard performance campaigns afterward.

“BRANDING” EFFORTS ARE GOOD TOO

What we traditionally thought of as more mid-funnel or upper-funnel activations are actually incredibly (and insanely) impactful for performance marketers. We can look at this in two ways:

The positive impact branding media has on the direct response campaigns

The overall business impact that branding campaigns drive (and wider net cast resulting in more direct sales)

And with that recognition comes more creative, engaging, ideas that performance marketers have traditionally ignored. Some examples:

What about an immersive instant experience unit on Facebook? Few are taking advantage of this opportunity to teach users more about their brand, new products, etc. in a thoughtful way

Utilizing 3rd party audiences based on actual sales data. Yes, they cost a premium but if you have great creative and the right campaign, this can truly drive more sales on site

Don’t shy away from reach/frequency as a goal. If you define an audience properly, have genuinely impactful creative, focusing on an audience penetration strategy with long tail sales lens can provide even more sales value to your social efforts

THE METAVERSE

While AR is now, VR is on its way. “World purchases” are not as far from reality as you think. Big brands, like Nike, are already taking advantage of the deeply engaged, deeply popular virtual gaming world. The time may not be right now but branding and commerce opportunities are on the horizon and advertisers should keep a pulse on this.

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