What brands can learn from the Facebook boycott
Beyond the politics and posturing, the flight of hundreds of brand media budgets from Facebook has created a learning opportunity.
Boycotting brands (at least those actually spending meaningful money on Facebook before their announced “exits”) will have at least a month to see how well they can live outside its $70 billion-plus annual media pool, which also includes Instagram, Messenger and the Facebook Audience Network on the broader web. Even competing brands can watch what their boycotting competitors do and how they fare.
One lesson is already emerging: Data suggest leaving Facebook behind doesn’t hurt nearly as much as some people might have feared. This may pose a bigger long-term risk to Facebook than the short-term revenue hit, which looks to be a measly single-digit percentage impact even with big advertisers like Unilever, Disney and Verizon pulling out. Facebook has 8 million customers, most of which can’t afford advanced third-party analytics. But if they catch wind that big boycotters aren’t hurting much, it could make them think twice too.
Here are some of the other things brands can—and can’t—learn from the experience.
This is not an A/B test
First, what you can’t learn is the precise impact leaving Facebook has on sales or other performance measures. No matter how clean a brand’s break with Facebook at the start of July, when the Stop Hate for Profit boycott began, evaluating results before and after doesn’t constitute a proper A/B test. GSK Europe Middle East and Africa Media Director Jerry Daykin pointed out some of the reasons for this on Twitter and LinkedIn in recent weeks.
For one thing, marketers would be comparing two months with slightly different seasonal characteristics. Alternately, trying to compare July 2020 results to July 2019 is complicated by a global pandemic that massively reshaped market demand and consumer behavior across categories. The boycott itself might have substantially changed other variables—including bids for certain Facebook audiences.
Ideally, an A/B test would involve using different media plans in different regions of the same country at the same time, changing only one variable—the media plan.
Leaving Facebook may not hurt much
Unilever’s Dollar Shave Club had been a regular spender on Facebook for years. But it went cold turkey midday on June 29, two days after Unilever announced it would stop all advertising on Facebook platforms and Twitter in the U.S. for the balance of the year, citing the increasing polarization of the platforms.
Dollar Shave Club’s desktop site traffic was down 8.2 percent in the five days from June 30 to July 4 after it turned off Facebook platforms, according to SimilarWeb. But competitors Harry’s and Procter & Gamble Co.’s Gillette, which continued to advertise on Facebook platforms, saw their traffic decline faster than DSC’s during that period—down 17.8 and 13.2 percent, respectively, SimilarWeb reported.
Wherever DSC redirected spending appeared to work about as well as its competitors. According to BrandTotal, DSC didn’t spend anything on Twitter, YouTube or LinkedIn during the period, either. Nor did it ramp up TV, according to iSpot.tv. That leaves the rest of web and radio as likely outlets. The brand declined comment.
Over a longer period, leaving Facebook behind can work out just fine, too. A Fortune 50 giant that stopped Facebook advertising in early 2019 over brand safety and accountability issues saw growth of its consumer business accelerate to 5 percent last year from 3.6 percent in 2018 and its stock price rise almost 43 percent, ahead of industry peers. (A company executive declined to acknowledge its move out of Facebook publicly or say where it had redirected spending, but its withdrawal from Facebook platforms was verified by Ad Age.) One place the brand’s spending clearly did move was TV, which went from close to zero before its Facebook boycott to more than $80 million annually afterward, according to iSpot.tv data.
Analytics firm Marketing Evolution doesn’t have clients that have joined the Facebook boycott. But the firm did, at Ad Age’s request, use its artificial intelligence system to analyze a recent nine-month brand-
building campaign for a luxury auto brand. The analysis evaluated what the impact would have been from taking $1 million of Facebook spending out of the mix and reallocating it across other digital channels, including Twitter, digital display ads and search. The move reduced impact of the spending by 0.1 percent.
“Facebook belonged in the optimized plan, but the brand would not suffer had the customer not had Facebook available,” says John Matthews, Marketing Evolution president and chief customer officer. Twitter delivered more impact than Facebook on improving brand attitude, while display and search generated more web visits than Facebook, he says.
You should have been diversifying, anyway
MikMak likewise doesn’t know of clients joining the Facebook boycott, says CEO Rachel Tipograph. But her firm, which uses shoppable ad formats and analytics to manage e-commerce campaigns, had been advising clients to diversify beyond Facebook anyway.
Some still put all their e-commerce money on Facebook, Tipograph says, because the platforms make it easy to buy ads at scale. “But if you put all your money into one channel, you’re not doing it right,” she says. “My healthiest clients have a very diverse mix. Some of my clients use us in 29 platforms.”
Still, she says: “There’s this narrative within the industry that if you want to buy social media, you buy Facebook, and you checked that box. But over the last year, I’ve seen our traffic really diversify. And what’s really interesting is that programmatic and [direct buys from] publishers have risen to the top” in delivering sales and customer acquisition.
You must pay to really play
The Stop Hate for Profit coalition behind the Facebook boycott isn’t asking brands to stop putting unpaid organic posts on its platforms, or even to stop sponsoring influencer posts there, since that money goes to creators, not the platform.
Some boycotters, including Birchbox, have redirected Facebook media spending to influencers, including on Instagram.
Unilever isn’t part of the boycott, but besides halting ad spending on Facebook and Twitter, it also isn’t sponsoring influencer posts there, a spokeswoman says. Yet the company is still posting for free on those platforms.
The problem is, the News Feed algorithms used by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms make it relatively unlikely people will see posts that aren’t backed by media spending—not surprisingly, since they’re all in business to make money.
Even so, Unilever launched a nearly five-hour Facebook Live event on July 3 to mark National Crown Day—the one-year anniversary of the signing of California’s Crown Act against hair style discrimination—and Dove’s effort to pass similar laws elsewhere.
The livestream, hosted by actress Tai Beauchamp, featured live music and organic social-media support from California Sen. Kamala Harris among others.
It got 40,000 livestream views across Facebook and YouTube, which a spokeswoman described as “a huge success,” though viewership was well short of the millions some prior Dove videos have attracted on Facebook when backed by paid ads.
The broader Dove Crown effort over the past month was backed by ads on BET, OWN and TV-One plus radio across 120 stations in 60 markets.
The cloak of invisibility has lifted
Years ago, a key feature of digital advertising was relative invisibility to competitors. But brands that want to monitor impact of the Facebook boycott can do so easily today, though usually for a price.
Some information is even free. As part of its efforts around transparency, Facebook launched its Ad Library two years ago, letting anyone see what ads brands are currently running and on which of its platforms. That generally only indicates existence of an ad, when it ran, and possibly how many people saw it, but not how much was spent. And it doesn’t go beyond Facebook.
For a price, Pathmatics—whose Facebook spending data has become ubiquitous in boycott media coverage—tracks daily spending by brands across social and other digital platforms.
Another firm, BrandTotal, provides similar competitive analysis of brand targeting and strategies in social media. The firm examined spending on five social platforms—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Linked-In—for boycotting brands from July 2-8 and found the boycotters scattering their social spending fairly widely.
CVS and MassMutual, for example, were spending only on LinkedIn that week. Others, including Dove, Adidas, Starbucks, Dunkin, Honda and spirits brands Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal, Smirnoff and Captain Morgan put it all into YouTube. Target put 97 percent into Twitter, 3 percent into YouTube. Some boycotters, including Ford, Denny’s, Coca-Cola Brands, Lululemon and Sony, didn’t spend anything at all on the five social platforms. And while Ford and Coke had said they’re suspending all social spending, the others didn’t. Two brands that hadn’t announced boycotts – Apple and Nike – nonetheless weren’t advertising on Facebook or Instagram.
Another lesson: It never hurts to check what’s really happening.