In 2011, while millennials flocked to social media, marketers—alarmed by platforms that favored real-time authenticity over meticulous messaging—hesitated.
Brent Stirling couldn’t believe people were missing out.
Among them? “A friend who started a bar and said, ‘We're just gonna open the doors and people will come.’ So I helped him out.” With little prior knowledge, Brent built their site, socials, design, SEO, photography and customer support.
Eventually Brent started his own agency and joined Shopify’s founding organic social team, later entering the world of paid advertising when he moved to growth as a performance marketer.
Two months in, the person he was supposed to learn from left the company. When he asked who’d replace them, “they were like, ‘Oh, it's you.’”
Under Brent’s leadership, Shopify grew from one social platform in English across six countries to seven platforms in 13 languages across 90 countries.
Now at Carbon6, Brent is helping enable e-commerce businesses around the globe to exceed their goals as the Director of Growth.
Despite his demanding schedule, Brent never misses a chance to offer advice on paid marketing with our Growclass community.
Today he's sharing that insight with you: breaking down the top four paid advertising mistakes that are costing you conversions, along with steps you can start taking today to drive real results.
Learn practical marketing skills and see the results in real dollars. Our members get promotions, start companies and grow their businesses.
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1. Your paid ads setup is bad
When it comes to paid social, you need to nail your set up and have a rough idea of what you’re doing.
Because, for the uninitiated, paid social is like walking into a casino and throwing money at a game you've never played. Meaning, it’s a good way to light your money on fire.
To stop your money from fueling an eternal flame, you need to consider all the pieces involved in setting yourself up for paid social success.
But before you create your strategy, your audiences, copy or ads, you want to get your ad tech set up correctly, and your events firing—because no amount of creative or audience building is going to work off of a bad ad tech setup.
But wait… what does *squints eyes* any of that mean?
Let’s break it down.
Ad tech helps you target your audience, deliver ad campaigns to them and measure their impact. Among the software and tools that make up ad tech, tracking pixels or tags are the base layer.
Tracking pixels (usually referred to simply as “pixels”) are a piece of code that you place on your website, allowing you to monitor conversions from ads, optimize ads, build targeted audiences for future adverts and retarget people who have previously interacted with your site.
Pixels are how ads follow you around.
In e-commerce, you can set up a pixel event for a product page view, add-to-cart, add payment info, and purchase.
With a Facebook pixel on your site, when someone lands on a page, the page view pixel event fires and is sent to Facebook, that tells Facebook that a specific person, if they’re logged in, has landed on your site (though post iOS 14.5, which introduced new privacy legislation for Apple’s operations software, not so much).
Events are actions that you want to track.
In e-commerce, events could be someone clicking a link, adding to cart, or making a purchase.
In SaaS, you can use different standard events to define lead, prospect, or customer.
In a post iOS 14.5 world, you need to verify your domain and then rank these events through something called aggregated events measurement (AEM) protocol on Facebook.
To further strengthen your signal, you can use Facebook's CAPI [Conversion API], to pass these events back, in real-time, through a server to server connection. A user’s email and all the other PII [personal identifiable information] that you want to collect.
That info, like someone’s first name, last name, and email address, are sent back to Facebook so they can try and match it against its database of people, and link it to that person’s Facebook profile.
Some platforms like Shopify, make all of this happen by just pasting your pixel ID into a field, and checking a few boxes, while other platforms can be a nightmare to set up and maintain and may require developer assistance.
Brent’s hot tip: Facebook and Instagram are powerful because they’ve been around and collecting people’s data for far longer, spending years building out their algorithm and the integrations they need with a massive data pool of users to pull from.
It's why most people set up ads there to vs. somewhere like TikTok, which is a far less mature platform, but is quickly rising to become a valiant competitor, especially as they continue to add users.
Pinterest kind of has their sh*t together and so does Snapchat, but they still rank behind FB in platform maturity and their ability to convert.
LinkedIn is far more expensive but offers deeper targeting options than any of the other platforms.
Platform choice really comes down to where your customer spends their time.
2. You’re limiting how you build your audience
Do more with the audiences you have.
All social platforms offer a few different ways to build your target audience. Generally, that looks like this.
- Engagement-based, social media engagers
- Pixel-based, generally used for retargeting
Just starting out? Then your best bet is prioritizing interest-based audiences, while breaking out a bit of money for retargeting when your site traffic deems it a good investment.
Interest-based audiences allow you to input the interests and demographics of your ideal customer so the platform can use that information to find them.
Beyond that, with a well seasoned pixel, a number of marketers see success with broad targeting (where you let Jesus—or in this case, the algorithm—take the wheel).
Another option is to leverage the list of people already engaging or buying from you (say, through an email list) to grow your reach, and target more people who share their demographic (age, gender, location, etc.) and psychographic (likes, interests, hobbies, etc.) data.
How? With the power of lookalike audiences.
A lookalike audience is exactly what it sounds like: an audience that looks like another one.
The best of these audiences are value based lookalikes. With value based lookalikes, you take your customer list (of at least 100 emails), including their personal info (names, email addresses), lifetime value [LTV], and/or average order value [AOV], and upload that list to Facebook for it to match with its users.
The LTV or AOV in this instance are your value. You can use just emails or a pixel event to create lookalikes as well, but with these, you’re passing less data (read: less information back to the platform).
You then decide how big or small you want that lookalike audience to be. Let’s say you want to target a new market, in a country like the US (you could also pick a group of countries), and you decide that you want a zero to 1% lookalike audience.
That means Facebook will build a lookalike audience that includes 1% of the population of the US that is most like the list you uploaded. It won’t tell you who the people in the lookalike audience are, but it does allow you to advertise to them.
Brent’s hot tip: Create at least a 0-4% lookalike audience to start. The bigger the better, especially when you’re starting out.
3. You haven’t collected enough data to setup an effective campaign
When you're new and just setting things up, you want to optimize your ad campaigns for the top of your funnel, at the first stage of your buyer’s journey.
This is because your pixel hasn’t been seasoned yet.
By seasoned, we’re not talking sugar and spice, but data. When you’re starting out, you don’t have enough about the people you want to target for your campaign to be effective.
To get that data, you need events to fire, like page view, content view, add to cart and purchase. When Facebook, or any other social platform doesn’t know who tends to take what action on your site, it’s essentially blind.
You can optimize towards your deepest funnel event, like purchase, but without a seasoned pixel, any platform may struggle to get people to take the action you want.
The best practice here is to always optimize towards the signal you want—but that can take time and burn money while an algorithm tries to find out what you’re looking for.
Instead, you can start by optimizing your campaign to upper funnel events like landing page views, add to cart or any action further up funnel (back to the top of your funnel, where awareness is priority #1).
That means your campaign’s goal is to send people to your landing page. If you go this route, you’ll want to quickly transition your conversion objective to lower funnel as you see deeper funnel events fire.
Don’t put your entire budget behind a landing page view or add to cart, but instead, use small amounts to drive a bit of traffic and then transition to purchase or lead/customer events.
The more actions people take on your site, the more information platforms have on the type of person that is interested in your business—which is more information on people who are more likely to convert.
As your pixel gets more signal, you can start running more effective campaigns and test other audiences, like broad targeting.
From there, you can get more advanced in your campaign structures.
4. You think your customer journey is linear
Say you’re on your laptop, looking at a sweater online. You leave, but later, when you open Instagram on your phone, you see an ad from that same company. You put down your phone, but after a few hours you open up TikTok, where you see another ad from the same business.
The next day, while you’re on Instagram again, you see that the sweater is 20% off, so you buy it through the shop’s Instagram store. A marketer, depending on their attribution model, could attribute that conversion to Instagram and their data may only show that touch point.
But you actually had multiple touch points with the brand, and their ads, before making your purchase.
While multi-touch attribution models have come a long way, they’re rarely dead on and can often miss cross-device and cross-platform sessions and conversions.
The fix to this problem? Post-purchase surveys.
Brent’s hot tip: There are a number of post purchase survey tools. For my money, I recommend KnoCommerce. These surveys can help you better attribute where conversions are really coming from and truly understand which platforms are performing for your business.
Why does this matter?
Because, as marketers, if we don’t consider all the different ways our customers engage with us before buying, we risk missing out on opportunities to build intent and target them with ads.
Many marketers will retarget their site visitors or even social media engagers. But many fail to consider how you can build intent on a platform, and use that intent to drive a conversion.
This plays out in a number of ways. A few things to consider are retargeting 10s or even 3s video viewers that haven’t visited your site. Another is to look at how a paid social campaign can increase branded search and direct traffic.
Sometimes a platform or multiple platforms that show terrible in-platform numbers can actually drive massive conversions.
Using post-purchase surveys and measuring your return through MER (Marketing Efficiency Ratio) vs ROAS (Return on ad spend) are a few ways to make sure you’re not turning off a campaign or channel that is actually driving considerable revenue for your business.
What’s important is that you keep an eye on your campaigns, as well as all the inputs about your conversions, to make sure you’re taking advantage of all opportunities available to you.
Deliver an incredible brand experience with paid ads
When you’re just starting out, paid can feel like a beast. But as long as you adopt an experimental mindset, and be patient with yourself, you open yourself up to a world of possibility—where even your “ok” creative can blow up with the right, strategic boost.
Now you know some of what to avoid, and what to do more of, it’s time to up your paid game and ping those sales. Go get it.