In the wake of skepticism by brands — such as GM's recent we're out/we're in Facebook dance — on the efficacy of FB ads, the venerable BBC decided to put it to a test.
The BBC's tech reporter, Rory Cellan-Jones, created a bogus brand on Facebook, calling it VirtualBagel, to test the effectiveness of Facebook advertising by posing questions (such as asking why users clicked "like" on the page) and trying to suss out what makes users trust brands they encounter, even fake brands, on the site.
The page showed minimal information, but within 24 hours, had more than 1,600 ‘likes,’ primarily from India, Egypt, Indonesia and the Philippines, and the page was most popular overall in Cairo, with 75% of ‘likers’ 13 to 17-year-olds. Within four days, it amassed 3,000 likes, clearly from fake profiles of people living in those countries.
"What was striking was that hardly anyone from the US or the UK - two of the most valuable markets for advertisers - appeared to have clicked to like VirtualBagel," commented Cellan-Jones about the response to the faux FB brand page.
Furthermore, “when the advert was adjusted to target only the UK, the number of people liking the page dropped to a trickle and the click-through rate - one measure of effectiveness - fell to just 10% of the previous level.”
The BBC investigation suggests that 'likes' as a reliable indicator of advertising success on the social network may actually come from spammy fake profiles. The ‘social spammer’ phenomenon is an augmenting problem in the viability of measuring marketing campaigns on Facebook.
Security expert Graham Cluley observes that "spammers and malware authors can mass-produce false Facebook profiles to help them spread dangerous links and spam, and trick people into befriending them," and that many likes come from such profiles.”
Facebook claims lack of interest in targeted marketing most often results from…poor targeting. UK-based independent digital marketing agency, Greenlight, agrees and supports Facebook as an effective advertising channel.
"For Greenlight and many other agencies and brands, advertising on Facebook has become part of the 'usual mix,'" observes Hannah Kimuyu, Director of Paid Media at Greenlight. “We specifically saw our Facebook investment (client media spend) overtake both Yahoo and Bing collectively at the start of 2011, hinting the channel has constant growth and is delivering a strong enough return to invest more.”
The BBC reporter also queried Facebook, “We've seen evidence that there are plenty of fake profiles being generated in parts of the world - or at least profiles that break your terms and conditions by not featuring real names. What are you doing to address this issue?”
“We've not seen evidence of a significant problem. Neither has it been raised by the many advertisers who are enjoying positive results from using Facebook. All of these companies have access to Facebook's analytics which allow them to see the identities of people who have liked their pages, yet this has not been flagged as an issue. A very small percentage of users do open accounts using pseudonyms but this is against our rules and we use automated systems as well as user reports to help us detect them and enforce our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Among those accounts using assumed names, many still represent real people with genuine likes and interests and we believe it is best to educate them about Facebook's rules and the value of using their real identity.”
One Facebook comment on the VirtualBagel page dismissed the exercise as "a joke" and questioned the methodology because:
"It considers the size of a Facebook community in an incredibly one-dimensional way. And then complains about getting fans from the countries specifically targeted in the ad? Why on earth would you set your ad targeting to these countries in the first place if you don't want fans from there? I hope no business owner takes it seriously as a piece of social media marketing advice. In addition, I hope someone writes a follow up article about why Facebook Ads are incredibly beneficial if used correctly. Only fair to show both sides of the argument."
Any way you cut it, it seems, the public will find a hole in the Beeb's methodology.