Advertisers say Facebook outage led to 'chaos' in buying

When Facebook went down Wednesday, it took a big chunk of its advertising market with it

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Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

David Herrmann could only watch helplessly as Facebook deducted thousands of dollars from his advertising accounts.

The social network went down along with its automated ad platform for 12 hours Wednesday, and Herrmann was powerless to turn off the campaigns he manages for advertising clients. On a normal day, he is used to action; a performance-based marketer juggling the ad accounts of about 15 clients, Herrmann is required to be hyper-vigilant with how their money gets spent on Facebook.

Some advertisers reportedly ended up paying upwards of 300 percent more for some ads due to erratic activity in the ad auctions.

"It was not a fun day yesterday," Herrmann says during a phone interview. Herrmann is co-owner of Social Outlier, a social media agency that handles about $400,000 a day in ad spending on Facebook, he says.

One advertiser can have multiple campaigns with multiple goals and multiple ads on any given day, and it's up to Herrmann and buyers like him to know when a strategy isn't working and to adjust on the fly. It's a matter of targeting, timing and setting the spending amounts and making adjustments on Facebook Ads Manager, the self-serve platform used by many of the social network's more than 6 million advertisers.

"The shutdown created chaos in the auction," Herrmann says.

When Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp all went down at about 12 p.m. ET, the ads manager was also rendered inaccessible. The ads manager is mostly automated, and some ads were still able to fire to consumers in any regions unaffected by the outage. For campaigns running on autopilot, there was no way to adjust them, meaning if a campaign was performing poorly there would be no way to shut it down.

The problems grew worse when Facebook's properties started coming back online Wednesday night at about 8 p.m., Herrmann says. Traffic surged on Facebook as people flooded the site, but Herrmann and other ad buyers say they were still at least partially locked out. Meanwhile, the ad campaigns are set to spend a fixed amount of money each day, and when all the visitors came back, the ads were triggered to start running in order to hit daily targets, eating up the budgets in the process.

"I was just locked out, seeing the credit card spending all this money," Herrmann says. One client's account spent the usual $19,000 in ads, but only generated $2,000 in sales as a result, when it typically generates $40,000 to $60,000 from its Facebook campaigns every day, Herrmann says.

Herrmann says that some advertisers were paying $270 for ads that typically cost $30, which he attributed to the haywire activity in the ad auctions.

Facebook declined to comment for this story.

Jason Portnoy, who runs Jport Media, says he spent all day hitting the refresh button on Facebook ads manager, waiting to get back online to stop the bleeding from failing ad campaigns. "You're watching something you know should not be running and there's no way to stop it," Portnoy says, recalling his experience during the outage. "You would have turned off spending hours ago, and instead you're just watching more money go."

Portnoy says he was too nervous to even calculate the total damage from Wednesday, so he doesn't know how many losses he and clients likely suffered. "I didn't want to go through it," Portnoy says. "And I don't like dwelling, it just makes me angry."

Still, it's unlikely every advertiser took a hit, Portnoy says, because it's possible others had automated ad campaigns that were humming along at peak performance, no need to tinker with ads manager.

That seems to have been the case for Akvile DeFazio, who owns social media agency Akvertise. "That was my initial concern this morning when checking in," DeFazio says by e-mail. "However, each account looks like it only spent about half of its daily spend and served about half of the impressions as they typically do on a given day."

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