Is Facebook Really Failing Marketers?

Recent analyst criticisms of the role of Facebook for brand marketing exaggerates the social media channel’s deficiencies relative to alternative venues.

Recently there has been a flurry of articles, reportage, and blog posts citing Forrester Research’s Nate Elliot’s claim that Facebook is “failing marketers” and that marketers are both well aware of said failure and are either already or should  be jumping ship. I’ll cite here just one example from a justly well-respected social media hero, Frank Eliason, saying:

In the report Forrester recommends marketers back away from Facebook until the company genuinely changes their ways by better building bridges between customers and companies as well as offering better ad targeting capabilities.

Analysts have been known to take a somewhat sensationalistic view of issues, and there’s no reason that Forrester should be considered immune to the tendency. But this is quite a kick in the teeth, no? Marketers, abandon all hope ye who enter here… But you knew that already.

Now, while in charge of social media at my previous company, I solicited and successfully obtained budget and bodies for a dedicated brand page and Facebook advertising, but I’m no Facebook fanboy. (Don’t even really use it myself.) But I thought then, and remain convinced now, that participation and advertising on Facebook is an essential part of any well-conceived digital portfolio of business strategies and tactics, at least for most large brands. You certainly have to know what to expect — and even more crucially, what not  to expect — from your investment in Facebook. (That is to say, don’t expect direct sales or even much of anything in the way of leads.) By all means, read Frank’s post for a good accounting of all the things Facebook just ain’t going to do for you.

But are marketers really that disappointed in Facebook, as Nate and Frank and many others claim? Let’s look at Nate’s evidence; aside from some anecdotes, it’s all in this one chart:

V3-Facebook-Failing-Marketers-Chart

Looks pretty damning, I must admit: A whole bunch of reputable and venerable online marketing strategies and tactics and Facebook marketing comes in dead last.

But take a moment to actually look at the chart and you notice a couple things: First, there are many “marketing channels” that are not  listed here that could be or, I would argue, should have been items in the study. Why no “Instagram marketing”? Why no “Tumblr marketing”? Why no Snapchat, no Quora, no Slideshare, no AOL anything, no Myspace, no Yahoo!, no Pinterest? Surely some such marketing channels — and I could easily identify a dozen more — that are commendable and useful for certain companies for certain purposes, might have made it lower  to the bottom of the list than Facebook. It almost looks as if Nate has, well, set up Facebook to fail.

Well, that would be imputing a motive to Nate that I certainly can’t prove. What can be proved, however, is the misleading nature of the claim that Nate and Forrester are making here. Again, please look at the chart: The greatest business value of all — no, actually just several — online marketing channels, according to this survey of 395 marketers, is on-site ratings and reviews, at 3.84. Facebook marketing comes in last in business value at, guess what? 3.54.

So, the Forrester scale, starting at one, not zero, contains 400 price points, so to speak, of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Notice that not one of the short list of marketing channels managed to score a business value of four, let alone five. Clearly, marketers are not exactly ecstatic about any of the online options available to them. Just as clearly, they see, in aggregate, very little difference in business value  between the options presented to them from Forrester. The difference between best and worst is a mere 30 on the Forrester 400 point scale or, if my math is correct — 7.5%.  That is to say, 395 marketers, faced with a short list of marketing channels, find Facebook marketing to offer 7.5% less business value than the channel that offers them the very greatest  business value. During my post-graduate days among philosophy students, we strove to make sure that any distinction we made had or caused a difference; here we have a difference that leads only to a trivial distinction.

So, is Facebook really failing marketers? Not based on this evidence. And it is hard to conclude otherwise than that the claim that it is failing is disingenuous, sensationalistic, or both.

I would pose another question: Since Facebook is not appreciably  failing marketers, at least according to 395 of them, could it be that the minor dissatisfaction such marketers feel about the business value of Facebook has more to do with a failure to figure out what a solid Facebook strategy really can — and can’t — do for them?

Kenneth Hittel // Ken Hittel is currently Digital Strategy Advisor on the board of advisors to FairWinds Partners, a Domain Name Strategy and Services provider. Prior to joining the FairWinds board, Ken worked in a variety of positions at New York Life Insurance Company for more than 20 years, the last 12 of which involved running the Corporate Internet Dept., responsible for the Company’s Digital Strategy, its Web sites, online lead generation programs, and its portfolio of mobile and Social Media presences. Ken has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Political Science and a M.A. in philosophy and Economics from the Graduate Faculty of the New School University. Follow him on Twitter: @khittel or email him at khittel@gmail.com.

Comments (7)

  1. I see Augie’s point about Facebook not living up to promise, but that’s very different than Ken’s point about the rigged graph. If there are other channels that could have been included (those in which marketers are investing something more than essentially zero), then the Facebook-as-last only as real as the impression given that Facebook is “failing” compared to other channels that are only a few points better. Which is to say not very real. Perhaps we could agree about areas in which Facebook has the potential to do better, areas where it’s not doing what it said it woud and, thus, how it may be failing or disappointing more seriously in terms of the contrast between promise and delivery.

  2. Ken, Thanks for article. I agree that Facebook has let us all down based upon their ‘noise’ on social signals…hopefully that is delivered at some point. Although in aggregate (across the globe and verticals) Forrester results show Facebook below other outlets, my hypothesis and experience is that in our industry the results would be different especially when looking at real business results such as recruitment and revenue generation vs. just branding.

    • Steve, I never looked to Facebook to for directly at least, meaningful revenue generation for insurance/finserv companies. But Facebook is inevitably now at least a stop or two on what, many years ago, Yahoo called the “long and winding road” of consumers’ insurance/investment purchases. So, you gotta be there. But WHAT you do there and HOW you do it is still the point. And I think that marketers’ disappointment with Facebook, anecdotally and statistically-insignificant survey-wise, speaks more to their own confusion about the what and the how than to major Facebook deficiencies. Yeah, the advertising, seldom really intelligently targeted, sucks — but then so do most insurance/finserv Facebook pages…

  3. Ken,

    As you know, I’m not completely in agreement with you here. Suggesting that omitting Tumblr or Instagram as a marketing channel is a bit of a straw man–both sites have zero (or essentially zero) ad revenue at this point, while Facebook is considered a much more mature channel (and one with around an $8B per year run rate of ad revenue.)

    I do agree that the differences in the chart are pretty minor, but last is still last, any way you slice it.

    My personal experience in debating the Forrester report with others is that people in ADVERTISING are all up in arms, but people in MARKETING (on the client side) are generally nodding. Some folks in the direct/ecommerce business are seeing better results on Facebook and there certainly are a couple of good case studies on Facebook advertising, but the simple truth is that most marketers are, in fact, disappointed in Facebook advertising.

    The Facebook IPO promised that the company was going to change advertising through the use of social signals, but very little of Facebook’s advertising actually uses social data. Instead, Facebook has become a typical site delivering eyeballs with the same demographic, remarketing and ROS-style advertising. I think that’s disappointing, because it really puts Facebook on the same level as any other site with eyeballs.

    Time will tell, but based on the buzz I’m hearing, Facebook has a long way to go to both please marketers and also earn sufficient revenue to get their Price-Earnings Ratio into a reasonable and competitive range.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    • Augie, I’m happy to see you weigh in here — and don’t really disagree that Facebook has yet to realize its promise to offer marketers MORE & BETTER opportunities than all the lesser-populated online channels — but I’m still puzzled that you, who have so often & so successfully called BS on Social Media BSers, will not concede that Nate’s/Forresters’ report is, well, BS.

      “Last is still last”? Really? — when you control the ranked candidates & do not include channels that so many marketers are throwing $$$ at, with apparently little to report in the way of return? Are Pinterest, AOL, Yahoo! really not relevant here? Had they, & maybe a dozen others, been included in the survey, would Facebook have finished “last” in perceived business value? I don’t think so, & I daresay you don’t, either. But Nate wouldn’t have been able to say “Facebook is Failing Marketers” had they placed in the middle of the pack instead of “last”!
      Especially given that the difference, on a 400-point scale, between first and worst, best and least business value, was a mere 0.30…

      Suppose I did a survey of 395 marketers, asking them to indicate the business value of research & consulting companies, including Forrester of course, but leaving out some of the older established firms, let’s say IBM Global Services, and some of the newer yet-to-be-proven but well-publicized agencies. And suppose Forrester came in “last” on my truncated list? Suppose further that the difference between best & least value on that truncated list was 0.30 on a 400 point scale? Could I then report that “Forrester is Failing Marketers” that either you (or Forrester) would NOT identify & reject as BS?

      The “buzz” you’re hearing about Facebook may well herald a less than stellar future for Facebook & its PE ratio — I kind of doubt it, myself, but that’s, admittedly, in your own word, buzz. Nate’s/Forrester’s post, however, was not published as buzz — “Marketers are telling me” or “What I’m hearing” — but as a scientific conclusion from a 395-member panel that “Facebook is Failing Marketers.” Which, on the EVIDENCE provided, it is not.

      So Nate & Forrester got themselves a little buzz, but the buzz is still BS.

  4. This is the most important piece I’ve read in a long while. A lesson for all, aside from the fact that Facebook IS valuable to marketers, is the notion of data interpretation. Numbers alone aren’t always as insightful as dissecting the story behind the numbers, and the convenient omission, thereof, of numbers in order for one to tell the story they wish to tell. Ken’s piece above exposes a bellyflop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, with the world watching. Important for people to read his post and learn from it.

    • Well said, Greg. What I’m left wondering is why analysts are inclined to make the verdict against Facebook in the absence of evidence. As a reporter, I understand the need to produce a story out of what one has, but the graph exposes a capacity to misinterpret, whatever the reason.

      Perhaps in part, industry observers have a kind of lingering dot-com fever that makes them look at the Internet world in terms of success and failure with no fine gradations in between. Thus, Facebook isn’t enabling marketers to rake in cash in an obvious way, so it must be worthless. But surely the Information Age will also be an age of subtlety, where success will often be found in the most astute and refined interrogation of data, including from multiple sources.

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