Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Facebook Ads vs. GDN: Battle of the Display Networks [Data]

Ours is a society of instant outrage, endless debate, and spicy takes. MJ or Lebron? Britney or Christina? Democrat or Republican? Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts? Throw any of those questions into your #general Slack channel and watch your coworkers rip one another to bits.

For digital marketers—particularly those looking to expand their efforts beyond paid search—another polarizing question looms: Facebook Ads or the Google Display Network?

facebook ads vs google display network ads 

Most of our clients already embrace Google advertising, but some have been slower to adopt Facebook. We wanted to see how results would compare across different industries and business types, so we ran a little experiment.

To figure out how these two advertising networks compare—gauged not by reach but, rather, lead volume and cost per acquisition—we ran a good old fashioned split test across 10 of our Managed Services clients' accounts. Disparate industries. Disparate price-points. The same goal: create new business opportunities using a method other than AdWords.

Before we get into the results, though, a quick overview of both Facebook and the GDN is in order…

The Differences Between Facebook and the GDN

On one hand, we have Facebook, a recently-maligned albeit relentlessly popular social network whose targeting options are completely unmatched (even as they come under fire); on the other, the Google Display Network offers insane reach and dirt-cheap CPCs (often without even a shred of intent).

Both display channels complement the intent-driven world of paid search by passively enhancing brand awareness through visually engaging ad creative, but the similarities stop there.

The Advantages of the Google Display Network

The Display Network is often ignored by small businesses because, outside of remarketing, it doesn’t tend to lead to conversions today. As advertisers move away from simple attribution models, however, the role of Display in even the smallest of accounts is beginning to change.

google display netowrk ads advantages 

You see, the Display Network is made up of more than two million websites and 650,000 mobile apps; odds are, your current and future customers engage with Display creative on a daily basis.

Often, these display ads look a little something like this:

 example of gdn ad creative 

While the selection pales in comparison to Facebook’s, the Display Network offers advertisers a variety of targeting options that can be used to reach prospects. Google breaks the GDN’s three most valuable targeting options into:

  • Interests and habits – Affinity audiences based on aggregate search data.
  • Active research and planning – In-market and custom intent audiences based on browser behavior!
  • Previous interactions with your business – Remarketing and similar audiences (probably the most popular function of the GDN among small businesses).

gdn audience definition 

Google allows for further segmentation via demographics (defined here as “gender,” “age,” “parental status,” and “household income”)…

gdn target demographics 

And provides the option to target specific websites (managed placements) or websites that feature specific keywords.

The GDN is a powerful tool that allows you to reach tons of people without breaking the bank (though traffic tends to convert at a much lower rate than that sourced from search or social).

The Advantages of Facebook Ads

Even with the recent blow dealt to custom audience insights, Facebook still offers advertisers a ton of targeting options that can be used to put ad creative in front of the right people.

Here are some numbers…

facebook user data by the numbers

That’s insane.

While paid search is intent-based—someone types a specific query into a search engine and, if you’re bidding on some variation of that query, they see your ad—Facebook is audience-based. Using its vast suite of targeting methods in concert with what you already know about the people who tend to have an affinity for your product or service, you can deliver hyper-relevant messaging to tightly knit audiences. In other words…

AdWords helps you find new customers, while Facebook helps new customers find you.

Facebook Ads can be insanely cost-effective and allow you to reach…

  • Niche groups of people (e.g. people currently attending college)
  • Users with expressed interests (e.g. people who are interested in home renovation)
  • People you already know (remarketing) either from your website or an email list
  • People that look like people you already know (lookalike audiences) either from your website or an email list

Let’s say you run a dance school for adults in Boston and want to find some new clients. You can pair geographic parameters with interest targeting like this…

facebook ad targeting example dance class 

…and some killer ad creative to book your classes out indefinitely.

Or, what if you’re trying to promote thought leadership to digital marketers? You can mash together all kinds of interests, names, and buzzwords…

 facebook ad targeting example digital marketers

(That audience is made up of 7,700,000 people in the United States, by the way)

…to bolster your blog’s readership with engaging creative like this:

facebook ad content promotion 

Whether you’re looking to sell widgets, garner leads, bolster brand recognition, or incite downloads, Facebook gives you the ability to do so using more than a dozen different ads formats across three distinct platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger): Outside of a fractured democracy, what’s not to love?!

The Verdict: 7/10 Advertisers Saw Better Performance on Facebook

Remember, we were just hoping to show that Facebook ads could perform as well as Google display. Of course, your mileage may vary, but we were surprised to see that seven out of the ten clients who participated in this study saw better results (more leads and a lower CPA) on Facebook.

Here’s what that looked like broken out on a client-by-client basis:

facebook ads vs google display network cpa comparison  

As you can see, numbers varied wildly across the board, with most advertisers finding success on Facebook and a minority posting better results on the GDN. One thing, though, seems clear: the two platforms were never neck and neck. In instances where an advertiser managed to garner conversions on both platforms, there was a wide margin in terms of CPA.

Now, this disparity is due in part to the fact that we’re not working with perfect comparisons. For example, the “Coding Class” client used lead ads on Facebook but used GDN ads to drive prospects to an on-site form fill. Based on the difference in CPA ($78 on the GDN compared to just $6 on Facebook), this crucial step made a massive difference.

Let’s dive into some of our individual client experiments to see what insights we uncovered.

Facebook vs. GDN Deep Dive: Coding Class

This client, who offers a niche coding class, faces an interesting dilemma: instead of targeting adults looking to make a career change, its course offerings are aimed at children. As such, search and display both pose challenges in terms of finding the right audience.

That’s what convinced them to finally give Facebook ads a shot.

For this experiment, we attempted to jump right to the middle of the sales funnel, comparing Facebook lookalike audiences and GDN similar audiences to find net-new customers who mirror existing converters. We also used lead gen ads on Facebook, while our display creative pushed prospects to a landing page with a traditional lead capture form. Results varied wildly.

facebook ads vs google display network ads coding class experiment 

Despite having significantly less reach (77,256 when compared to 1,381,079 on the GDN), the CPA on Facebook was a mere $6!

Perhaps more impressive than Facebook’s dirt-cheap CPA, though, was the consistency at which audience members became leads; the combination of lookalike audiences and lead ads yielded a 43% conversion rate.

Facebook vs. GDN Deep Dive: Home Renovation Services

Home renovation leads ain’t cheap: Projects can vary wildly in scope and there are a ton of window shoppers. For those reasons, finding qualified prospects is a must.

We utilized standard single-image ads on both Facebook and the GDN, pairing the former with an audience of users who had previously conveyed interest in home renovation projects and the latter with those who Google deemed to be in-market for the services offered by our client. What resulted was a much lower CPA on Facebook ($147) than the Display Network ($333).

facebook ads vs google display network ads home renovation experiment 

The difference between interest and in-market audiences clearly played a role in Facebook’s success. While in-market uses browsing behavior to make an educated guess as to whether a prospect might have a proclivity for your product or service, Facebook gives advertisers the ability to find users who have actively expressed an interest.

Facebook vs. GDN Deep Dive: Marketing Automation Software

Marketing automation is the backbone of just about every tech company you’ll run across these days. While first contact might very well occur through a paid marketing channel, it’s the combination of automated emails and sales outreach that turns a prospect into a customer.

For this experiment, we focused on driving prospects to a landing page using single-image ads. On Facebook, we built audiences based on users who had conveyed an affinity for competitor CRMs and other common pieces of software (like, you know, WordStream Advisor). On the GDN, we used a combination of in-market audiences and custom affinity audiences based on direct competitors.

facebook ads vs google display network marketing automation experiment 

Like what we saw with the home renovation example above, the targeting on Facebook proved more effective and yielded both a higher conversion rate and significantly cheaper conversions than the Display Network.

Facebook vs. GDN Deep Dive: Shaving Subscription

Ten years ago, nobody would’ve bought a razor on the internet, let alone subscribed to have some shipped to their doorstep each month. What conveniences we enjoy!

For this shaving subscription client, we used remarketing audiences comprised of non-converting site visitors broken out based on duration since a user’s last visit. As is tradition, we noted more impressions on the GDN (334,096) than on Facebook (11,680), but people engaged—and subscribed, credit card in hand—at a much better clip (zing) on the social network.

facebook ads vs google display network ads shaving subscription experiment 

When broken out by duration, Facebook performed more effectively with the prospects we thought we’d lost, those who hadn’t stopped by the site in a good long while. Interesting, though, the GDN outperformed Facebook for short-term remarketing audiences; seeing display creative within days of visiting the site resulted in CPAs that came closer to those tracked on Facebook.

Facebook vs. GDN Deep Dive: Used Car Dealership

And now for something completely different…Video!

Big ticket items can be an attribution nightmare, but they make tools like the Display Network, Facebook, and YouTube incredibly valuable; they afford advertisers a cost-effective scattershot approach that can be dialed in once prospects complete specific actions.

This experiment was interesting in that it resulted in near-identical metrics across both Facebook (37,027) and YouTube (39,816), at least in terms of views.

 facebook ads vs google display network ads used car dealer experiment

But the Facebook videos received more engagement: they were watched to completion a whopping 10,000 more times.

What does it all mean?

For those of you still wondering if Facebook advertising even works, this data may prove to be of interest.

Across a variety of industries and strategies, Facebook’s killer targeting, engaged audience, and glut of creative options helped it outperformed display ads served through Google AdWords.

We think our data shows that almost every industry—from automobile sales to coding classes to SaaS software—should at least give Facebook ads a try. But the truth is most businesses should be using both. The GDN’s ability to reach people across the web immediately after visiting your website (through remarketing) significantly improves brand recognition and enhances conversion volume, contributing to your advertising success across the board.

 facebook ads outperform google display network ads

Curious as to how your performance stacks up against what we saw in our experiments? Check out our Facebook Ad Benchmarks and AdWords Benchmarks for recently updated industry-specific metrics!

About the Data

The data in this post is taken from a sample of 10 WordStream Managed Services clients across a variety of industries utilizing different targeting methods and best practices for both Facebook ads and the Google Display Network. Each client advertised on both Facebook and the GDN for one month in 2018 with a budget of $5k ($2.5k on each platform).

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