The social network has good reason to go the extra mile when wooing carmakers. Just days before going public last year, Facebook's ad business faced a major crisis when General Motors announced it would pull its ads from the site because it wasn't sure if they were having an impact on sales. GM came back to the fold in April, and Facebook has been trying over the last six months to be more strategic about the overtures it makes to automakers.
Now it's taking what it believes is a tantalizing pitch for automakers to this fall's digital upfronts: In addition to its reach, Facebook can deliver an audience of people actually in the market to buy a car. Through its data partners, the social network can show automakers how many people exposed to their ads ended up buying their car after at least two months have passed.
The holy grail for Facebook -- and other digital publishers -- is to show how big of a hand it had in influencing that purchase. That would be critical for Facebook to get a larger share of spending from automakers, which have no shortage of online options for reaching consumers actively researching a car purchase.
Facebook's strategy largely hinges on better targeting. In April, Facebook made it possible to target people in the market for a car through its partnership with data behemoth Datalogix, which in turn has a relationship with Polk, a marketing company that collects registration data from DMVs.
Better targeting, along with better measurement and the option of more-attractive newsfeed ads where photos render much better than on the desktop right rail, is starting to pay off for Facebook, according to Addie Conner, chief innovation officer for social-ads company SocialCode.
"We're starting to see autos back on the platform: retesting, reinvesting and now coming back with really large spend," she said.
While ad networks also access auto-intender data, Facebook's trove of user data offers a higher degree of accuracy than cookie-based technologies, according to Kass Dawson, the social network's head of auto-global vertical strategies. That's because the process of matching third-party data to Facebook users is based on identifiers that people have given in their profiles, like names, addresses and even phone numbers.
"In some cases, that allows us to reach a much greater audience within some segments than they're going to get anywhere else that's based on cookies," said Mr. Dawson, who came to Facebook six months ago from Jumpstart Automotive Group, which sells ads for a portfolio of digital publications. "Multiply that by our scale, and you're talking about numbers that are very significant to advertisers."
For the first time, this fall Facebook is participating in annual digital upfronts -- nine of them, according to Mr. Dawson -- held by individual automakers to commit spending for 2014. (Regular participants include "endemic" sites like Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book, where people go to research a car purchase, as well as Yahoo Autos.) Facebook has something new to sell: sponsorships that allow automakers to buy out an entire segment of in-market users -- people likely to soon buy a sedan or a compact car, for example -- for a month.
Mr. Dawson declined to comment on the pricing of the segments or whether any had been purchased. Based on the reach involved, they're likely to be pricey. The smallest contain between 4 million and 5 million people, he said.
Hyundai Director of Marketing David Matathia said his team tried Facebook ads for in-market users as part of a beta test last December and was satisfied that it reached its targets. To date, Hyundai hasn't bought Facebook's monthlong-reach blocks, but it plans to continue testing the effectiveness of ads aimed at auto intenders.
"The next bit for us -- and we've talked to [Facebook] about it -- is isolating the Facebook exposure specifically," Mr. Matathia said.