They're a smug bunch, those B2Bers who have booted Facebook from their advertising mix. While too green in paid media to be in their posse, I've counted myself among the group's hangers-on, eager to learn from these in-the-know marketers. Year after year, as these naysayers have deemed Facebook "good for B2C, but not B2B," research results have served only to validate their decision.
Equally puffed up by these numbers, I've consistently given Facebook advertising a brazen thumbs-down for B2B. One or two years ago, I don't think I was wrong.
Today, I'd choose a different emoji.
A few 2016 reports give Facebook decent marks among social channels used by B2B marketers. Case in point: a study from Outsell, Inc., names Facebook as the second most effective social platform (behind LinkedIn) for B2B lead generation. Other surveys, however, are less enthusiastic in their assessments. For example, a report from the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) ranks Facebook as number five in its "overall effectiveness" for B2B.
Granted, correlating results from separate studies is a little like comparing bananas to pears. But for hard-headed B2B Facebook skeptics, it doesn't matter. Seemingly discordant results are enough to trigger a "thumbs-down" response…unless there's an intervention.
My attitude toward Facebook started to change when my marketing colleague Lucas Rotondo urged me to read tech visionary Ben Thompson's evaluation of the company. Normally, my head isn't in the tech space, but because Rotondo is wicked smart and doesn't recommend anything lightly, I dutifully pored over Thompson's Stratechery blog. I'm glad I did. Thompson's thorough analysis of Facebook's recent market moves really connects the dots, persuading me to take a long view…and eventually admit that Facebook may be underrated as an advertising company.
In this post, I'll highlight three reasons why B2B marketers should reconsider Facebook advertising. I'll draw liberally from Thompson's insights (which are conspicuously absent from mainstream B2B marketing conversations). I'll also explain how, when taken together, these insights point to a fascinating possibility: In the not-too-distant future, we may wake up to find Facebook as the default advertising medium for all marketers.
Reason 1: Facebook is the front door to mobile.
Thompson argues that Facebook functions as a unique gateway to mobile, "the greatest market the tech industry, or any industry for that matter, has ever seen." Part of what makes it such a great market is that it's relatively untapped. (Mobile ad spending continues to lag behind mobile usage, accounting for only 17.3% of total media ad spend in the U.S.)
Another reason why mobile is attractive to advertisers: its devices are carried around in pockets – a convenience that invites usage that's distinctly different from PCs. While desk-moored PCs are used with "intent" (for a specific reason, such as research, accounting, etc.), Thompson contends, mobile devices are active during "the available time around intent" – i.e., during the minutes snatched between on-the-go activities. During this time, Thompson says, people are inclined to connect with others. And what better way to do that than to use a mobile device, which is inherently personal and plugged in to "the conversation that is happening right now"?
Responding to high levels of mobile usage, U.S. marketers are expected to increase their mobile digital ad spend, more than doubling 2015 levels by 2020.
When we want to find interesting content via a mobile device, Thompson reasons, we don't typically perform a Google search, which would suggest "intent." Accordingly, we aren't likely to see Google ads. Instead, we go to Facebook – or one of its family of mobile apps (e.g., Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp). Proof point: one in every five minutes on mobile is spent on Facebook and 60% of Facebook's monthly active users use only a mobile device to access the service. And while we're spending an average of 50 minutes a day on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, what will we see? Facebook-hosted ads and sponsored content.
"From an advertising perspective, Facebook could be the next Google," says Rotondo, a senior marketing director at Dun & Bradstreet. "By mastering search, Google became the PC's gateway to the Internet. Then, it built upon this core strength with smart acquisitions like AdWords.
"Facebook is using the same strategy, buying companies like WhatsApp to strengthen its mobile advantage."
Reason 2: Facebook isn't just about friends anymore.
Reaching B2B buyers (on the go or at their desktop) is one thing. Developing emotional connections with them is quite another. B2B marketers from enterprises that aren't customer-centric are focused on transactions, not relationships. Historically, this has made the personal nature of Facebook's platform a mismatch for many B2B brands. However, today, B2B marketers are beginning to recognize the value in deepening their engagement with buyers. That's why we're hearing more about the shift from time-bound campaigns to continuous brand narratives.
While B2B brands experiment with evocative storytelling and relationship-building, Facebook has built on its core strength (as a global directory of Internet users) to become a rich platform for Internet storytelling. By moving into mobile publishing, Facebook not only zeroes in on a lucrative revenue source (in Q1 2016, mobile advertising represented about 82% of Facebook's overall revenue), but also capitalizes on a significant shift in the way people are using Facebook.
Over time, the social platform has grown beyond its initial "it's all about me" phase, expanding into "what I think is important" territory. As individuals' Facebook networks have grown larger, the sharing of user-generated or "original" content has declined, resulting in "context collapse" and a drop in intimacy. This opens the door to B2B sponsored content.
"People are sharing more than their personal lives on Facebook. Now they're posting more links to videos, news and business articles," Rotondo says.
This change in content-sharing behavior has been noted by traffic analytics service Parse.ly, which reported last year that Facebook accounted for more traffic to news sites than Google. Happily riding the trend of publisher content-sharing, last month Facebook rolled out Instant Articles in its newsfeed. Tapping Facebook app technology, this new capability enables publishers to share interactive articles that load up to 10 times faster than standard mobile websites.
Another recent nod to publisher content: Facebook has updated its policies, allowing verified media companies and influencers to share third-party posts (including those from B2B brands), provided they tag the marketer in question. And just last week, the social network announced it will target non-Facebook users ads on third-party websites, using intelligence collected through “like” buttons and other pieces of code present on Web pages across the Internet.
Something else B2B marketers should pay attention to is the introduction of bots on Facebook's Messenger platform (in beta). These bots aren't Facebook bots, but rather bots written by businesses. They provide Messenger users with automated subscription content (e.g., weather updates) as well as customized communications, such as shipping notifications.
"Not only is Facebook encouraging third-party content sharing, but it's also introducing immersive experiences that B2B marketers can use to connect with audiences," Rotondo says. "With Canvas [mobile ad app] and Live [streaming video], Facebook has given us tools to pull people in. We just have to create engaging content and reach the right professionals."
Reason 3: Facebook makes it easy to reach business professionals.
While professional characteristics (such as employer and job title) have been available on Facebook's ad targeting menu since 2014, advertisers often skip over or don't update these fields. Behavioral data provides another targeting option, but it's incomplete on its own. Today, however, B2B advertisers have more business targeting options to choose from, including the recent addition of Dun & Bradstreet's 280 B2B audience segments. Available to Facebook Ads Manager accounts by request,* D&B's verified data includes company size, decision maker, job title, function and industry.
Facebook's expanded third-party audience segments provide a key advertising advantage: business context. This equips B2B marketers to define audience segments by company profiles or professional personas – something that can't be done well with basic demographic, interest or behavior-related information alone.
Another appealing aspect of Facebook ads is its low cost-per-click (CPC) across the board.
"Facebook is potentially the most affordable and effective social advertising channel out there for B2B. But if you're not using verified target data, you'll often reach the wrong buyers and waste ad dollars," Lucas says. "You can convey a strong message, delivered on mobile device, at a time when it's seen, but all that falls apart unless you're reaching the right professionals."
Facebook is offering more to B2B advertisers than ever before. I believe the platform's unique gateway to mobile, third-party content support and new professional targeting options make it a strong contender for B2B advertising.
Are these reasons enough to earn a "wow" emoji from B2B Facebook naysayers? Maybe….maybe not. But surely it's worth a test.
*Dun & Bradstreet partners with LiveRamp, an Acxiom company, to enable connectivity with Facebook.