In 2009, Facebook revolutionized the online advertising world by allowing business pages to compose and run their own Facebook ads. It’s hard to believe that was just eight years ago. So let’s think of this more like dog years—that gives us a better perspective on the evolution of online selling. That decision shot their advertising revenue from a mere $150 million to $350 million in one year. In 2016, Facebook’s annual ad revenue was a conservative $27.6 billion according to Tech Crunch.
The Firehose Opens
As recently as early 2015 it was still fairly easy to have success with cold audience Facebook ads for a number of different goals with a smallish budget of say $10 a day. Cold audiences are people that don’t know you…yet. When Facebook was my only ad spend I was able to measure the number of book sales from ads with a simple rough formula: total daily sales minus average organic sales per day (calculated monthly). Then I could also calculate the average number of clicks it took to sell a book and what my average cost per sale was. Not as easy to measure as Amazon Marketing Service ads or BookBub downloads but a general idea of direct Facebook ad sales.
In late 2016, sales from cold ads to sell books (not discount promotions) began to drop for me and my clients drastically. I found that with all the genres I was measuring, a budget of $600/month no longer produced anywhere near $600 back in sales. As a matter of fact, we had ads that were not even delivering—the first time that had ever happened to me. And they were not delivering because I had a controlled “per-click” bid that I couldn’t exceed in order to be profitable. I thought it might be the holidays but the trend continued until late summer 2017. So, we had some decisions to make.
When Facebook announced in summer 2016 that they were running out of ad space in the newsfeed I knew we were in for it, but I wasn’t sure how they were going to fix it. In the coming months they focused on the Facebook-Instagram ad connection. Then, they started to emphasize Audience Network ads. Now we have ads via Messenger. And ads are being tested in public groups. None of those alternatives appealed to me as a marketing manager. None of the platforms I manage use Instagram as a primary channel and I still view Messenger ads as invasive. And the nebulous Audience Network option is just code for “we’ll throw your ads out there on apps and other sites we have access to.” No thanks. So what’s the answer?
The State of The Union
Right now, it takes a pretty healthy budget, a higher click bid, and some fancy targeting to have success with cold audience ads on Facebook. Remember, those are people that haven’t discovered you or your books yet. People who don’t know you from Adam. Most of the people I’ve talked with are spending upwards of $1,000 a month to get a return. Some more established authors and brands are spending as much as $5,000 or more each month. And they are making a profit. But how much profit? I know we see “income reports” from a number of different authors, but most of them are established bestselling authors. I also know that results vary and there may be people reading this that are making a lot of money with a meager budget. If that’s you, good job. I still make money on most Facebook ads, but not on every type of ad I used to run.
The Have’s and Have Not’s
There is one important element we need to understand when judging the effectiveness of Facebook ads as reported by our fellow authors. Your spend will get an automatic boost if you have a couple platform-related markers. For instance:
- NY Times bestselling author—hey, your books are already selling.
- An author with 2 or more popular series that are consistently in the top 100 of their genre category. Or authors whose books consistently rank in the top 1000 on Amazon.
Authors with those markers are going to be able to sell more books anywhere. Their platform is the social proof they need to get a foot in the door. Facebook ads enhance their reach because their books are already popular and proven. They are the restaurants with the long waiting lines.
For the average indie, Facebook cold audience ads to sell books outside a giveaway or promotion are now a crap shoot. What was once a go-to ad platform for many brands is now a competitive frenzy. And that frenzy has equated into higher budgets and higher click bids in order to yield a return. And because of these challenges, we (meaning I and the author brands I work with) have decided to cut back our Facebook ad spend significantly and direct that recaptured energy and budget to different platforms and different types of ads. I am aiming to make Facebook ads part of a larger strategy—when they are appropriate to the goal—and not the strategy.
The New Goals
I still find that regular Facebook cold audience ads work well for several short term campaigns:
- Limited time book launch discounts.
- Book bundles or boxed sets, Kindle Countdown Deals, or other discount promotions.
- Short term email marketing growth campaigns with strong, valuable lead magnets.
- Product launches, like online classes, where free webinars or free samples are involved.
Our new goal with Facebook advertising is three-fold:
- Increase the reach of discount promotions and book launches.
- Increase loyalty of present Facebook fans with warm audience ads that will increase email sign-ups and book sales–strategic boosted posts aimed at our page fans.
- Limit our discovery budget. I still believe that ads for discovery (email sign-ups with excerpts or perma-free books) are valuable in getting people in our sales funnels so I am willing to break even or lose a little money there with short term campaigns. But budgets for discovery are going to be tighter and we’ll step up organic discovery strategies.
The New Strategies
- Increase reach of discount promotions: The hope is to be able to find new and more effective ways to reach readers with new releases and discounted books. I am experimenting with Custom Engagement Audiences based on people who have engaged with a certain Facebook page in the last 365 days. We also started using ad stacking in 2016 (running a number of ads on different platforms at the same time) to increase reach of discount promotions. I’m also still dabbling with lookalike audiences based on an email list. These ads are all short term campaigns. We are phasing out ongoing ad campaigns with no cut-off dates. We are being particularly careful that cold audience ads provide obvious value like a perma-free book, free excerpts, or short term discounts.
- Warm audience ad strategy: We will also use boosted posts aimed at people who already like a page (the warm ads) for book launches and short-term email growth campaigns. How many of you have 100% of the emails from your Facebook page? We will continue to boost the occasional post that gets hyper engagement in the first two hours (1-2 per month). Boosted posts are cheaper and fulfill the objective: reach the people that already like you to move them into deeper loyalty and engagement. I know boosted posts temporarily juice your engagement rate. I also believe there is a honeymoon factor there with the algorithm elevating your next few posts until your engagement rate normalizes. I’m tracking this to try and prove the theory.
- Advertise new lead magnets: Run a first-in-series free (maximum of a couple weeks) or an exclusive email-delivered serial to attract new readers. In the coming year we’ll be focusing on producing lead magnets designed specifically to turbo-boost engagement in a shorter period of time. Not long running ads, but using a motive of scarcity by offering something valuable for a “limited time.”
The Bottom Line
There is no guarantee that Facebook won’t upset the fruit basket in a month and send this all back to the drawing board. It’s rented land; we’re just tenants. But no matter what you do, a few general principles are important in your ad strategies:
- Make sure you have content and ads that address the three main stages of the sales funnel: Discovery (new readers), Awareness (building loyalty w/valuable posts), and Sales.
- Test, test, test, test, test. And if you’re tempted to duplicate any “succeed like me” stories (including mine), make sure it’s a fit for your platform level, budget, and backlist. See the graphic after this post from my new book The Newbies Guide To Sell More Books With Less Marketing to see what I mean by platform level.
What’s A Newbie To Do?
It is my opinion (and I share it for free) that Level One fiction authors do not need to be running any Facebook ads. Refer to the graphic below to get an idea of what platform level you are. But it is your money. This is just my two cents worth. Ads really pay off if you have some sell through potential (books behind the one in the ad). If you don’t, your return will be limited to just the book you are advertising.
Try less expensive discount sites (Bargain Booksy, EReader News, etc). Network with other authors to find which ones work best for your genre. But I don’t recommend investing in Facebook ads other than the occasional boosted post (see number two in the New Strategies section).
In the fiction writer platform levels image below you may find you have some markers from different levels. The main marker is number of books you’ve published followed by sales per month. This isn’t an exact science but it’s a great place to start when making decisions about how to promote your books. Chris Fox uses average the Amazon rankings of your books to define your level and I think that’s a good indicator as well.
If you are a nonfiction writer, your platform markers are determined by your book’s goal. What part do books play in your total platform? If your book is a business card then your are using it for discovery and leads. So Facebook ad strategies for that goal apply. The ad strategies are different for nonfiction writers because most are using books as a lead generator to feed into other business purposes.
Whatever you do with your ad strategy, make sure you are running ads that are goal-driven and appropriate to where you are in your author journey in terms of platform level and budget.