Bridging the Gap: How Facebook Teamed Up With TV Advertisers

Lucy Davis
Apr 19, 2016 · 11 min read

You caught a glimpse of it on Mad Men: the headlong excitement of the early days of TV advertising. Harry was scrambling to score deals with the biggest stations, while Don took advantage of the medium’s full audiovisual experience to sell increasingly seductive creative visions. They’re fictional characters, of course, but the world they were creating wasn’t so far from the real thing.

The thrill of those early days is long gone, but the industry’s fundamental processes haven’t changed all that much. That’s because the boom depicted on the show — TV ad spending grew from $1.5 billion in 1959 to $3.5 billion in 1969, according to AdAge — led to several more decades of prosperity. In short, TV advertising hasn’t been broke, so there’s been little reason to fix it.

Well, until now. People are giving up ad-supported, linear TV in favor of digital services that let us watch whatever we want, whenever we want. We’re getting content from services such as Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and Facebook, and now we have the option of viewing on mobile. This is especially true of millennials, who make up about a quarter of the population — including most of the critical 18-to-34 demographic — and wield $200 billion in annual spending power. They’re watching more video content each day, but they aren’t sitting on the couch. They’re watching the latest episode of Master of None on their iPads, or even their phones.

As you might expect, the shift away from linear TV has been a significant challenge for advertisers and agencies. This is where my product team at Facebook enters the picture. Our goal is learning about the unique needs of our advertisers and working with them to solve their greatest challenges. In this case, that meant helping them reach the people they were finding increasingly hard to reach through TV.

Digital is revolutionizing what advertising can do, in ways that most advertisers haven’t fully integrated. We knew we could provide advantages over TV such as more precise targeting — as well as matching the reach of the Super Bowl on an everyday basis. But first we had to help advertisers, especially those who had little experience with digital advertising, see the possibilities. No one at our company had yet built this bridge, which had the potential to make a huge impact for brands, Facebook, and consumers.

We knew we couldn’t help broadcast advertisers solve their problem without understanding how they work. The obvious way to start was by talking to them. We set up meetings with agencies we knew and booked flights to New York. The team that flew east consisted of a designer, researcher, product manager, engineer, and product marketing manager.

The diversity of that lineup was a deliberate choice, rooted in our belief in the value of getting different disciplines involved — and collaborating—as early as possible. We hoped the trip would help the team’s diverse points of view and areas of expertise coalesce into a common understanding of the users we wanted to serve.

For that to happen, we all needed up-close knowledge about the world we were stepping into. We arrived in New York full of questions. What’s the process for allocating budget for TV campaigns? How do media agencies decide where to run their ads? What makes a broadcast media buyer at an agency successful in their role/career? What matters most to the clients they serve?

Our researcher led a series of conversations that began to reveal answers to these questions. We learned, not surprisingly, that these broadcast advertisers know they have a problem. But they’re also deeply rooted in a 50-year-old industry, and learning new workflows and ways of buying ads was easier said than done.

We discovered that they were most comfortable buying ads by picking up the phone and talking to a person, and that these conversations centered around conventional TV advertising metrics, such as target rating points (TRPs) and Nielsen ratings, that Facebook didn’t support. We didn’t realize it at the time, but these metrics would play a critical role in our story.

After a couple days of hearing these stories and insights, the world in which these advertisers lived started coming into focus. It became clear that we needed to find a way to make the process of buying video ads on Facebook feel easy and natural to someone who might not even have a Facebook account.

In a way, it felt like a familiar challenge for us — one that played right into one of our core business design principles, “Bring clarity to complexity.” We were accustomed to creating intuitive ways for people to tackle complicated workflows. In this case, that meant building a tool for broadcast advertisers that would help them navigate the world of digital advertising.

But it wasn’t until we took a cramped subway ride, during this cold February week in New York City, that our product really started to take shape. Our whole group was crammed into a steamy subway car, heading downtown from an uptown meeting. With some time to kill, we started sharing the themes we had been hearing, and what we were most surprised about. Ideas started popping up.

One of the more outlandish ones was: “What if we provided the TV broadcast advertiser with a phone?! Or at least a phone number?” This evolved quickly into the concept of a phone with a direct line to Facebook sales.

We realized that this low-tech “Batphone” concept was just about the last thing anyone — ourselves included — would expect of Facebook, which built its business with online ad creation and management tools. But something about it felt right. All the broadcast planners wanted was a number to call to get a quote and then place their order. It began to dawn on us that the real product we needed to build wasn’t for broadcast advertisers after all. It was for the Facebook sales team!

Although we’d been talking to advertisers and learning about their world, we’d still been thinking about the problem on our own terms — about how we could bring them into the world of digital advertising. We were still seeing the problem from our side of the bridge, where solutions tend to be closely tied to the latest technological advances. As designers, we know it’s critical to make the conceptual leap to the other side, but it can be difficult to do so, especially when the problem at hand is a daunting one. The “Batphone” idea, as simple as it sounded, helped us make that jump.

Giving salespeople a way for people to call them and place orders was hardly a revolutionary idea, but for us, it represented a completely different way of doing things. Instead of building an innovative tool to fully exploit the unique strengths of Facebook advertising, and then convincing TV advertisers of its value, we could build a tool based entirely on our understanding of those advertisers’ unique needs.

As we kept trading ideas on the subway ride, the product began to crystallize: a tool that would let our sales team quickly and easily create plans and convert Facebook video ads into the language of TV ads, while on the phone with our advertisers. The only part of the product the advertiser needed was the number for the sales team, along with a clear summary of the campaign plan that was easy to access and share. By the end of the 15-minute subway ride, we had the basic idea for our product. We had unlocked how we were going to bridge the chasm between traditional TV advertising and Facebook video.

We quickly realized that making such a simple, traditional workflow work with digital advertising would require plenty of engineering muscle behind the scenes. All kinds of processes would be going on underneath the tool’s hood: not only the auction machinery, but also inventory management, delivery pacing, predicting Nielsen results, optimizing delivery for Nielsen TRP in-targetness … in short, we knew we plenty of work ahead of us.

After debriefs, brainstorms, and group sketching sessions in New York to flesh out our idea, we were excited to return to Menlo Park and dive into bringing our concept to life. Our designer started by documenting what we had learned about the role of broadcast advertisers and how they work. This illustrated workflow served as an anchor for our designs.

For our tool to feel truly familiar to broadcast advertisers, we knew it had to use TRP as its key metric. Based on gross rating points, a key metric in TV advertising since the 1950s, TRP has long given broadcast advertisers a handy way to measure the total exposure of an ad to a specific consumer audience, blending the percentage of the target audience reached with the average frequency of impressions.

Ideally, an advertiser would call their Facebook sales representative, tell them how many TRPs they’re looking for, the basic demographic they want to reach, and the time period of the campaign. Based on this input, our sales team could quickly share how much this would cost. With the click of button, this plan could then be shared with the advertiser in a clear, engaging, and interactive format. The only thing left for them to do would be to place the order.

Initial concept of the workflow from creation to sharing

After a couple of months of furious work creating comps, we were eager to get feedback from the advertisers we’d met with. Was this workflow easy enough that reluctant advertisers were willing to give it a try? Would our plans give them the clarity and detail they needed to convince their clients?

We learned that, yes, we were on the right track. The advertisers also shared some great insights on where we could further improve the designs and workflow to serve them even better. For example, we learned how much they valued being presented with multiple options for the campaign plan. In response, we built automatically generated options — three for each plan — into the tool. And to reflect its focus on the metric that was so familiar to TV advertisers, we named the tool TRP Buying.

Armed with this validation and feedback, our next step was to take the design concept and turn it into a functioning prototype. It was at this stage that the interactions came to life. We started to learn what felt good, as well as what worked on paper but felt wonky in practice. For example, we’d been using a natural language statement to summarize campaign details, but prototype testing taught us that these were hard to parse. We replaced the statement with a simple list of details in a sidebar.

Using natural language proved difficult for the user to parse valuable information.
Switching to a sidebar allowed for easier scanning.

Solving such problems in the prototype, rather than waiting for the final build, gave us more time to iterate, and allowed our engineers to move faster when they started.

This efficiency was critical since we had committed to a hard date for product launch: the week of September 28, 2015 — also known as Ad Week, one of the most important gatherings of the year for advertising and marketing leaders. It was only a few months away.

We also found that having a functioning prototype gave us a level of insight and feedback in testing that we couldn’t get using static designs. When we tested our prototype with our internal sales team — the people who were going to actually use this product every day — they told us they thought they were interacting with the real thing. This heightened our confidence that we weren’t going to have any major surprises when we released the build. It also meant that we didn’t have to wait for the release to create training material.

One of the best benefits for the design team was that this prototype meant we didn’t have to create specs for our engineers. Having a detailed HTML prototype that matched the intended design meant no redlines were needed. All the styling guidelines were right there in the code.

So, with a couple rounds of research and a functioning prototype under our belt, we continued to charge forward. Engineers started implementing at full speed and our designer sat next to them, on hand to share feedback and help with any unanticipated features or interactions as we raced toward our launch date.

Final Product

At Ad Week, we launched. We waited anxiously the morning of the announcement, while our head of global sales, Carolyn Everson, shared the news of this new offering with the world. How was it going to be received? Was anyone going to care? Would the product help broadcast advertisers start to see Facebook as a viable alternative to TV commercials?

We kept refreshing our browsers, looking for posts or articles that would give us a hint. Then they started to surface, from both clients and the press:

This is not about taking a step back from the great targeting opportunities that digital offers, but more about making these targeting capabilities accessible to more folks because it’s in a language that many others are accustomed to.
Ronalee Zarate-Bayani, head of digital advancement for The Hershey Company, which tested TRP Buying

With TRP buying, Facebook’s sales pitch to TV advertisers becomes, “Hey, we have that audience you can’t really buy on TV anymore, and we’ll let you buy ads against them the way you always have.”
Tim Peterson, AdAge

While Facebook emphasizes its complementary nature to TV, by improving its brand ads the social platform is increasingly becoming a legitimate alternative to TV.
Julia Boorstin, CNBC

This product successfully signaled to agencies that we were willing to make the effort to truly adapt to them, and in return they opened their doors to us for the first time. We were getting meetings with broadcast advertisers who would have never previously taken our call. In fact, the report from our team at Ad Week was that this product was all clients and the press wanted to talk about. We ended the week happy, satisfied — and tired.

I’m proud of the tool we designed and the bridge it has helped build between digital advertising and broadcast advertisers. In the course of six months, we created a product that allowed advertisers to plan a campaign across TV and Facebook.

But I’m even prouder of the fact that this success was based on our willingness to see things from our clients’ point of view. We heard them when they told us how they worked and what it would take to build their confidence. We set aside our own perspective long enough to find the solution that would benefit them the most — not the one that would show off how innovative we were. Instead of trying to fit TV advertisers into our world, we found a way to fit digital advertising into theirs.

Elegant Tools

Exploring the role business tools designers can play in making the world better.

Thanks to Frank Marquardt, David Hayward, and Courtney Kaplan.

Lucy Davis

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Elegant Tools

Exploring the role business tools designers can play in making the world better.