Why Small Businesses Don’t See Return on Social Media Ads

Eunika Sot
Oct 2, 2019 · 6 min read
All rights reserved.

In the past few months I attended quite a few workshops where the same thread keeps coming back like a badly thrown boomerang and hitting everyone in the face:

Small businesses don’t see a return on paid social media ads.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page — I’m not saying businesses shouldn’t develop their own profiles on social media platforms. Instagram can still be a powerful tool if your creative knows what they’re doing and can grab people’s attention by the throat in a world where everything screams for clicks.

Chances are that you will only ever have two seconds to become memorable, so make sure to use them wisely. For the aesthetics obsessed, the only thing you really need is the iPhone X and some interesting exposed brick — or is that yesterday’s news? It does seem this way sometimes. Chasing a new Insta-worthy trend won’t shoot your social presence sky-high, but it might just help you find what it is you’re really looking for.

And then there are paid ads.

There was a time about 4–6 months ago where Instagram ads were clearly targeted, engaging, and quite indistinguishable from original content except for the “sponsored” disclaimer. Do I care that it’s sponsored? Not really, as long as the content fed to me tastes like the same pleasures I’m used to consuming on a daily basis. Because if I like stinky cheese and dirty martinis, trying to convince me to drink vanilla lattes is a stupid idea.

But somewhere along the way, the decision was made and now I see ads in Spanish, French, ads for cellulite reducing leggings, and the craziest of all — ads for sad bois’ personal profiles trying to grow their #InfluencerLyf by laming it out in front of sports cars. And so Instagram sinks into the same advertising trap that others have sunk in before it (namely its F-word parent company): chasing growth at all costs, even if that cost is the ultimate entropy.

Positioning your business right beside the above and then wondering why you’re not getting the right returns seems a bit counter-intuitive. Successful advertising is about the right positioning and association — how on earth are you supposed to create a lasting, coherent impression and sustain a specific brand image if you have zero control over whether your ad for custom jewellery appears beside one for Taco-Bell?

But this article isn’t just about me using metaphors to make you see how fast the Instagram landscape is going from gentrified to geriatric. It’s to make you see that if you want to create something lasting and true, then the only way to do so is to take notice of the same people that have created the platforms they now want you to advertise on. The end goal is to always, always, always control your own traffic. No matter what tools you’re using to get access to it now — I can promise you, it won’t last.

So take it, make it your own, and keep it for as long as you can. That is and always will be the name of the game.

Trust no feed.

There are a select number of brands that have created such a strong image out of the social media chaos that I go to their own Instagram profiles instead of trusting my feed to, well, feed it to me. I go to their sites, and I seek out the content they make on other platforms. And above all, I speak up and spread the word because this is what the company wants out of me. To convert digital into word-of-mouth — that is the goal.

I recently spoke to Shannon Kamins, a founder of one of our partner brands and an amazing entrepreneur from Booch Organic Kombucha, who told me, “I’m the one doing all of our social media posting currently. I’m posting on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter yet I’m still unsure what people want to see, and things are changing so fast in the social media landscape… what’s a Facebook story? Should I be posting there too?”

Shannon is doing an excellent job at her Instagram, by the way — every photo looks so fresh that it makes you want to taste all her amazing concoctions. The reason for this is that Booch’s branding is on point, their involvement with the local community is stellar, and their message is clear. But Shannon is running a growing company — establishing her foothold with local retailers, increasing distribution, and making sure everything’s on track. Should she be expected to learn Facebook stories? Figure out Snapchat? Get into TikTok?

Digital advertising is still a funny space — blurring the boundaries between the business and the personal, as can be seen by the above-mentioned example of an influencer advertising his own self. Because why not.

Influencer brands (those with millions of social media followers) know the true cost of that following. Producing social media content isn’t hard per se, but producing it at volume? Two pieces per day for Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, once a week for YouTube. Starting the conversation on Reddit, making sure you own an appropriate aesthetic space on Pinterest… The list goes on and there is always another one poking its head out from around the corner, such us TikTok.

My solution to this is to let the customers do the talking for you by providing them with a space where they can create genuine content about your brand. Hmm, I guess you could do that if only Instagram would let you share other people’s content in your own feed. But they don’t. Instagram never had a share button. This is a crucial decision that was made a long time ago.

Social media is about sharing… or not.

Initially, I figured that it was to encourage original content creation and that might as well have been the case. But Instagram is way past the point of its early “this is a platform for cool San Fran photographers” days, and still that one key sharing function has never been tested out.

At this stage, the only explanation that makes sense is that Instagram avoids in-app sharing to control traffic. There is simply no way for a few different people to share the traffic and/or create virality on Instagram. This becomes apparent when you confront it with short bursts of uncontrollable K-factor that rise and die on Twitter all the time.

This way, Instagram discouraged virality on its platform to get you to pay for ads. The same tactic was used on Facebook. But neither platform lets you pay your way to virality — they only want to make you think that you can. What you’re paying for instead is access to linear growth, the same thing that they used to offer for free back in the day.

Until a few months ago, my company used to publish our blog on Medium. On the face of it, Medium is a great environment — you can always hope for at least a bit of traffic to your post, especially if you also grow your personal following.

We did that until David Billson, one of our advisers and the founder of marketing agency rTraction, pointed out that he can’t read our content without signing into Medium.

This is not a digression. I’m simply reinforcing a message — if your content is on another platform, you might be able to control what you post but you don’t control the access and distribution. We’ve since moved to our own blog, although there is no harm in using Medium too, specifically as a way to direct traffic to your own platform.

If there is one thing that I want to leave you with at the end of this article, it’s this: social media is a tool, so use it as a means to an end (ultimately sending people to your own platform) because it’s not the end in itself.

About me:

I write about stuff. Especially stuff that makes me mad. Currently that is social media.

I’m a co-founder of Yuser, a social media app born out of distaste to the fact that 80% of online advertising revenue goes to two companies while small businesses see negligible ROI.

On Yuser, we offer free advertising space to businesses when they transfer the marketing cost directly to customer by offering them their product. If you’re a business and agree that online advertising is BS find out more about our partner program here.


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