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How to Save Facebook’s RHS Ads

Published: June 30, 2014

Author: Bob Bamber

I cannot recall the last time I set up a Facebook right-hand side advert. It cannot have been that long ago, but already the memory has been vanquished by the statistical dominance of News Feed ads. The data is phenomenal; some research has suggested that click-through rates on News Feed adverts are up to 50x higher than that of right-hand side (RHS) ads. Sure, they come at a much higher price, but sometimes the results are so much stronger it’s more cost-effective anyway.
The rationale, it seems, is that the placement is better, the images are bigger – but can you really explain numbers like that purely based on improved placement and size? I believe there are some serious flaws with Facebook’s RHS adverts, most of which aren’t really to do with size or positioning, that are causing the CTRs to be comparatively so low. I will outline what I think these problems are and then attempt to solve them, both from the perspective as a professional who advertises on Facebook’s platform and from that of a user. Just because they’re dirt cheap in comparison does not, by default, mean they have value.

The Flaws

The Standards of the Adverts – I think Facebook has created its own problems with RHS adverts by not vetting them better. The standards of these adverts – in grammar, design, imagery, and content – vary quite considerably, so much so that if I were being generous I would call them mass-produced, and if I were being critical I would call them spam.  Once people got a stench that these adverts weren’t relevant, they started to overlook them. They are designed with very high-volume distribution and low clicks, meaning that their cost is very low.
The space for text in the adverts is too sma – Good luck creating an advert where you’ve got so few characters to play with. Facebook’s desire to add the option for imagery means that it’s impossible to get a point across without butchering sentences. I don’t necessarily believe that it’s the bigger footprint that is the advantage for News Feed adverts, it’s the ability to have an advert with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
They’re so easy to ignore: Why would I even look at the RHS? It’s JUST adverts. There’s no reason to even view it. If a TV programme was called “30 minutes of adverts,” you wouldn’t watch it. Without anything dynamic to catch people’s attention (like an animated banner advert or a video), it’s far too easy to just subconsciously ignore it.
There is no RHS on mobiles: And rightly so, but it’s hard to even do a like-for-like comparison these days because mobile adverts perform so much stronger than their desktop counterparts. Sure, for the sake of an experiment, you can run desktop News Feed vs. RHS – but nobody is going to do that unless they want to avoid mobile, which you really shouldn’t be doing.
Come on, Bob – these are problems. We came here for solutions.

The Solutions

Ok, then. Let’s work from most to least likely/easy to implement:
Hold adverts to a much higher standard: Make advertisers work harder to get into people’s homes. There’s a reason Google AdWords doesn’t just order adverts by price: they understand that wouldn’t be best for business. Google holds adverts to a higher standard, including a demand that they be better targeted. Current RHS adverts are so cheap that they value spammers and people just looking for clicks at a low cost – this drives high volume and leads to a lot of irrelevant content.
Allow Multi-media adverts: This would be interesting, and largely not fitting with Facebook’s usual policies. Why not give a brand the option to have a rotating gif, or a small video? Just because the real estate is small doesn’t mean you can’t do different things with it.
Put the ads on the left: The silliest idea, perhaps. But people have gotten so used to adverts being on the right they will have trained themselves to ignore it. If you move them to somewhere else they’ll pay attention, at least in the short term.
Create a second News Feed: Are you mad? Hear me out: why not kill 2-3 birds with one stone? Facebook doesn’t want to storm people’s main feed with content from businesses – that’s fine, if a little questionable given that you can do just that if you’re willing to pay for it. But why not make the RHS a more “rolling feed” – one that people expect to be updated much more readily with ALL of the content from ALL of their friends and pages. Make it a stream a bit more like Twitter that is dynamic. Even if it’s much thinner than the main News Feed, people will look at a stream like this. Then you can utilise a smaller advert portfolio that people might be tempted to look at.
Maybe there is value in RHS adverts on Facebook that I’m overlooking, but I cannot say I’m missing them. As a user they offend me at times with their poor quality and generalisations. Only Facebook will know how valuable they are, but for me the idea that “they’re smaller” as a sole explanation as to why they are so comparatively inferior to News Feed ads is inadequate and needs further investigation.

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