Herd behaviour in action: the stampede to praise Facebook before its share offering has become a stampede to criticise it since – and there’s a timely survey to back the critics up, suggesting Americans are spending less time on Facebook and don’t pay attention to its ads in any case.
What’s their grounds for suggesting this? Well, they asked people about their behaviour, of course. For regular readers of the Brian Juicer Blog, alarm bells might be ringing. Does the self-reported data stack up? Are Facebook users good witnesses to their own behaviour?
Other sources confirm that time spent on Facebook on PCs peaked earlier this year – mobile is a different beast, and the idea that “engagement” ought to be reduced to “time spent” is fraught with issues. But I think the question “Are you spending less time doing X than you used to?” is likely to be emotionally parsed as one about enjoyment, interest and boredom, not a rational calculation about minutes spent in total across platforms. So I trust that part of the survey.
The problem is the advertising bit. Four out of five Americans have never been influenced by a Facebook ad. And we know this because… they told us they hadn’t!
It’s the old “advertising doesn’t work on ME” problem. I don’t think most advertisers would expect people to say “Yes, that advert influenced me to do something I wouldn’t otherwise have done” – on Facebook, TV, or anywhere else. People like to present themselves as autonomous decision-making agents: changing behaviour because of an advert rather goes against that. And more: to assume that people make the rational choice to change their behaviour because of an advert is to assume that adverts work by persuading people.
But there’s a body of research suggesting advertising doesn’t work like that at all. Instead, say researchers like Les Binet and Peter Feld, great advertising makes brands famous; it works by making people feel good about the brand and priming them to act on those positive feelings when it comes to making a purchase. We believe this, and think that the appeal to reason comes after the decision, as the brand supplies ready-made stories to justify the positive feelings its adverts create. Stories which don’t often include “I bought it because I saw it in an ad”.
So is the survey wrong, and do Facebook ads work? Well, we know that what people say when directly asked about ads’ influence doesn’t have much to do with their behaviour. That doesn’t mean Facebook ads are effective. Do they make people feel good about the brand? Do they make a brand famous? If not, might there be other ways they work? These are questions for another blog post – meanwhile, just be aware that a survey as broad as the Facebook one tells you more about researchers than advertisers.