A coding error has meant Facebook misreported ad performance data to Aussie advertisers for more than a year. And, while the issue doesn’t seem to have affected small businesses, it highlights concerns over the digital advertising options available to them — or the lack thereof.
As first reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, Facebook has apologised for providing Australian advertisers with misleading information.
A coding error caused the platform to miscalculate ad metrics, including the number of people clicking on an ad on the app, or which ad users prefer.
That was going on for over a year, between August 15, 2019, and August 31, 2020.
“While making improvements to our measurement products, we found a technical issue that impacted some conversion lift tests,” Paul McCrory, director of Facebook Australia, said in a statement.
“We’ve fixed this and are working with advertisers with impacted studies,” he added.
“This impacted less than 0.1% of advertisers in Australia.”
The social media giant is now offering free credits to those advertisers that have been significantly affected.
A spokesperson for Facebook said this is generally not an issue small- and medium-sized businesses will be affected by.
According to Facebook, the error occurred within its conversion lift tests function, which is designed to track the success of a campaign beyond simply recording the number of clicks it generates. That’s typically used by large ad agencies, on behalf of businesses with large budgets.
However, the error does highlight some concerns about Facebook, and global tech platforms more broadly, as platforms for small business advertising.
“Unfortunately, over-reporting return isn’t limited to just Facebook Ads,” Morris Bryant, co-founder and partner of digital marketing agency Sparro, tells SmartCompany.
“It’s the nature of digital advertising attribution where each channel reports in isolation. Even worse when that data, itself, becomes flawed.”
No single channel is able to give small businesses all of the answers, or all of the return they would like, he adds.
“Trusting each platform’s data is like giving the bank your credit card.”
A digital duopoly
Speaking to SmartCompany, Darren Urquhart, founder of digital marketing agency Rise Local, notes that Facebook is an important tool for small businesses, sometimes accounting for 100% of their marketing activities.
But, we’re basically looking at a duopoly. For small businesses, the options are Facebook or Google. Or, at least, that’s how it feels.
That places them in a precarious position.
“They should not put all their eggs in one basket,” Urquhart says.
Both platforms restrict the control advertisers have over their campaigns, to some extent, as well as the transparency around them, he suggests.
Google’s auction system, for example, by definition pushes ad costs up to unreasonable levels.
“As advertisers and their agencies increasingly bid each other up, Google just hoovers up all that margin,” Urquhart says.
“It comes directly out of the SME’s pocket,” he adds.
“It gets to the point where it doesn’t make economic or commercial sense.”
Back to the future
That said, there are opportunities for those who think outside of the box.
Urquhart points to platforms such as Hipages that offer online directories for trades business, for example.
There’s also untapped potential in SMEs’ own databases — sometimes they have thousands of people at their disposal.
And, even though his business is all about digital advertising, Urquhart advocates for an offline presence too, and especially for businesses serving a local market.
For tradies, for example, direct mail is still often a winner. As is a good old-fashioned ad in the local paper.
“We’ve got to get creative again. We can’t just rely on easy leads from these two tech companies”.
The marketing world has almost gone full circle, Urquhart says. The digital space is saturated with ads and junk mail, while physical mailboxes sit empty.
“If you want to cut through to a target market, think about the old school ways of doing it.”
Staying in control
That’s not to say small businesses should swear off online or social media ad campaigns altogether. For Urquhart, it’s more about knowing what your options are and weighing them up, rather than falling into what seems like the ‘obvious’ thing to do.
“If you’re in a very niche market, I still think Google and Facebook can work for you,” he says.
But, if you’re a business selling a more generic service, such platforms might not be the right place to put all your advertising dollars.
The automated campaigns on offer tend to simply mean Google and Facebook are determining everything, Urquhart explains.
They may have AI smarts at their disposal. But that’s only valuable if you’ve got a big data set to work with, and a large target market.
If you’re a scaling startup, that could work. If you’re a hairdresser catering to a small town, perhaps not.
“Letting yourself fall into Google’s and Facebook’s insurance that they drive everything for you is a mistake,” Urquhart says.
“You want to maintain as much manual control over your campaigns as possible.”
Bryant adds that many successful digital-first brands have allocated 100% of their marketing budgets to Google and Facebook Ads, and seen significant growth as a result.
“More and more, though, brands are pushing up the traditional ‘funnel’ and looking to reach, engage, affect users over just making a direct sale,” he says.
“It means that media diversity and all that comes with it — the expectation of each channel, and your ability to track and benchmark it — becomes where the battleground where you win and lose.”