*Guaranteed, But Not How You’re Thinking
What is social media advertising?
Social media advertising is a branch of digital marketing that comes down to buying attention from social networks with the singular goal of driving action.
For all its complexity and channel choices — Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snap, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc. — that’s it. Buy attention: ad costs, budgets, and spend. Drive action: acquisition, retention, and efficiency.
Applied to ecommerce, however, we’re faced with an uncomfortable truth …
If you measure success on ROAS alone, you’ll kill your social media advertising. Worse, when problems arise, you’ll incentivize the opposite of what you want. We see it all the time:
And the final harbinger of doom? Running deeper and deeper discounts, more and more often, to maximize top-of-funnel results.
Here’s the problem: ROAS can tell you if an ad is working. It can’t tell you why.
No, the key to an exceptional online marketing plan is to unhook your brain from a siloed approach to results and replace it with good, old-fashioned advertising thought-work. That need is why we’re going to uncover:
Five steps to build your creative strategy and 35 social media ad examples to guide every twist and turn:
But first, about that guarantee
The value of digital advertising is it gives you the ability to learn.
Learn what your customers respond to. Learn what works and what doesn’t. Learn where and how your customer interacts with your ad campaigns.
Your creative strategy is successful if it provides you valuable, actionable information.
Every loss should be a lesson. Every win should be a waypoint. And, by incrementally improving your work, you’ll achieve the big-picture revenue results you want.
Ok, ok. Enough preamble. Let’s get to the goods!
If you’re a single-SKU small business, this step is easy.
Likewise, if you have a dominant bestseller and you’re simply aligning it with the most-recent DTC trends. If that’s you, skip to step two.
For everyone else, determining what you should “really” sell means identifying your most valuable products to center your creative efforts around.
With those data points firmly anchored in ecommerce analytics, ask yourself:
These products are the hidden gems. Once they’re mined and polished, they could change your business completely.
In the case of Bambu Earth, it literally did.
After acquiring the clean-beauty brand in 2019, we were on the verge of shutting down. Despite glowing customer feedback, we just couldn’t make the ad account work at scale …
Not until we pulled back from the individual ads and looked at 60-day LTV.
What we discovered was a 40% increase in customer value with certain products — like the mini-kits — outperforming the rest by significant margins (pun intended)!
The result of that discovery was a reorientation of the ad account toward a skin-quiz funnel that intentionally drove customers to the right products:
The truly staggering part?
ROAS did not improve. It went down. Especially as we scaled ad spend.
And yet, we were able to grow the business 415% YoY in 2020 and another 63% in Q1 of 2021 compared to Q4 of 2020 at a ~20% profit margin overall.
Ready for another gut check?
People don’t buy the thing you sell. It has no inherent value.
Instead, they’re buying the thing the product does for them. As Eugene Schwartz, author of Breakthrough Advertising, said:
“In reality, every product you are given to sell is actually two products. One of them is the physical product … the other is the functional product — the product in action — the series of benefits that your product performs for your consumer, and on the basis of which he buys your product.”
We can get even more pointed than Schwartz by adding a third dimension, identity:
For instance, our in-house brand Slick Products sells cleaner for your off-road vehicles. Initially, Slick’s main competitor wasn’t a different dirt bike cleaner.
It was dirt-bike enthusiasts’ homemade and very-cheap cleaning concoctions.
This created a need to validate the very idea of spending money on a special cleaner. And that meant letting this tight-knit, fiercely independent community know that our product fit their lifestyle.
Problems of identity usually remain unspoken. Either because they’re embarrassing and vulnerable, or they fall into the category of “if you have to say you’re cool, you’re not.”
Functional problems should be addressed verbally in ad copy, spoken aloud by an influencer, etc. Identity problems should be addressed non-verbally: branding, design sensibility, influencer choice, etc.
In this case, we started a relationship with Ricky Carmichael — the “Greatest Dirtbiker of All Time.”
Ricky gave us a testimonial where he spoke to the functional problem that our product solves. Plus, the very fact Ricky was using our product did all the work of solving the identity problem.
How do you unearth the functional problems your product solves and learn how to speak in a way that resonates with your audience’s identity?
It begins on the home front. When a customer leaves a review, they’re doing something magical: writing your copy for you.
Our client Incrediwear makes knee and elbow sleeves that use copper to activate blood flow. They function like compression sleeves but wear like a snug pair of comfy socks rather than a straitjacket.
Incrediwear originally marketed their sleeve as a recovery product for elite athletes; many pro athletes do wear the sleeve.
However, an entirely different market was out there. Review after review talked about how effective Incrediwear was for solving something else — joint pain caused by arthritis and surgery.
All of a sudden, we have a different picture altogether: an elderly person who needs something to help them sleep through the night.
We adjusted our messaging accordingly — and grew the brand from almost non-existent to $3M in online sales.
Look for reviews off-site, too: blogs and YouTube reviews are both fantastic places to hear unfiltered insights about your product.
Reddit has a (deserved) reputation as a cesspool of shitposting and bigotry. It’s also an incredible place to hear unfiltered discussion from people who haven’t purchased your product yet. You might even get the chance to eavesdrop on unguarded praise (or hatred) for your product from people who’ve already purchased.
Say you run a skincare brand. You go on the r/SkincareAddiction subreddit and search the name of your brand. This uncovers a 200+ comment thread entitled “[your brand] Skincare … worth it?!?”
A frank discussion reveals that the poster is worried about your face creme’s consistency. Several people in the replies share the same concerns. Nobody even mentions your clean ingredients once.
Now you have some clues to go on as you consider what angles to test: reassurance about the consistency of your creme may be more important than the ingredient list for top-of-funnel customers.
Nothing tells a story quite like a keyword search — plug in a search term, and the “related queries” section paints a picture of what and how people are thinking about the topic.
“Skincare routine” reveals the following:
For whatever reason, Hawaiians are searching for this term at a higher rate than other subregions of the U.S. This gives you a thread to begin pulling on — why might that be the case? Is there a way to take advantage of this?
Then you’ll see the “related topics” and “related queries” sections. These add a little more color to your search term, and yield more paths to potentially explore:
From the above combinations, a few things stand out:
The Ordinary, a brand by DECIEM skincare, is crushing this category right now.
Why is this the case?
What are they doing that you can do, too?
The word “hyram” keeps popping up. This refers to YouTube influencer Hyram Yarbro, whose skincare routine videos consistently get 4M–10M views each. Also, Hyram lives in Hawaii and is pretty vocal about it, which might explain why Hawaiians are overrepresented with respect to this search term.
What can you learn from Hyram?
How does he create his skincare routine videos? How does he talk about skincare?
“Korean skincare routine” keeps coming up. A bit of research reveals that it’s not a routine for Korean people’s skin. Rather, it’s a specific ten-step process that was popularized by a Korean beauty blog, and has since become the template for skincare routines.
What’s the 10-step routine here?
How can your products play a role in this routine? How can you use market knowledge of K-Beauty to introduce your brand to new customers?
Note that with all these lines of inquiry, the search term is a jumping-off point — you (probably) won’t find success by just targeting Hawaii and throwing the words “ordinary,” “Hyram,” and “Korean” into your copy.
These words will start you down the pathway to transforming your brain to look like the brain of your target customer — and that’s where the magic lies.
Plus, they can unlock a host of search-engine optimization (SEO) and search-engine marketing (SEM) insights; like on Google AdWords or Google Shopping.
Don’t limit yourself. Keep expanding your “who” into popular tweets or Twitter threads as well as hashtags on Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, etc. to fuel organic content across social media channels and even into your email marketing.
Lastly, Google Trends and social listening are particularly powerful to stay on top of emerging movements like Web3 and NFTs.
Restriction breeds creativity.
Digital advertising is restricted in several very specific ways, and successful creative development means knowing those restrictions and being creative within them.
Embracing and embodying each platform’s limitations dictates your success.
That’s true in Facebook advertising. It’s true for Instagram advertising. And, yeah, it’s true for lead generation on LinkedIn as well as across all the other social networks.
Despite the fact that social-media advertising is better understood than ever before, it’s still very young as a creative medium: unless you’re under 23 or so, you spent your childhood consuming advertising as television commercials or still ads in magazines.
This is something we see all the time with clients, especially those with legacy businesses that want to break into digital media — the classic storytelling arc of TV commercials seems embedded in their subconscious.
Social-media platforms are very different from TV, and require you to keep the following restrictions in mind.
The other four points in this list don’t matter without stopping your audience’s thumbs in their tracks.
Unfortunately, many creatives think in terms of the traditional TV story arc — rising action, climax, falling action.
In digital advertising, you have to begin with the climax — the problem your product solves and how your product solves it. Then, gradually land the viewer on the call to action.
Or, to quote the father of modern advertising, David Ogilvy: “When you advertise fire extinguishers, open with the fire.”
This is another David Ogilvy maxim that is more relevant today than it was even 20 years ago:
“Whenever you can, make the product itself the hero of your advertising. If you think the product too dull, I have news for you: there are no dull products, only dull writers.”
In practical application, that means show the product as clearly as possible, as soon as possible.
In this example from ‘47 brand, the left-hand image focuses on the product itself, and the one on the right focuses on the model.
Not surprisingly, the plainer image of the hat outperformed lifestyle significantly.
Unlike TV commercials, which focus on characters or setups and then introduce the product to that setup about halfway through, the product itself needs to jump out at the viewer right away.
Another side effect of the TV commercial hangover is production studios’ tendency to create content in 16:9 (widescreen) and then cut it down for mobile. Here’s the thing:
95% of people access social media via mobile.
That means you have to create content born to be viewed on these devices instead of treating social-friendly formats as an afterthought.
Notice, the right-hand concept looks great. It worked brilliantly as a preroll ad on YouTube. Sadly, when we framed it square for social, it eliminated enough visual context from the left and right sides to torpedo the ad.
With the exception of YouTube, every social advertising platform requires creative in the following formats:
Your creative must be planned and executed with mobile in mind.
Well, this depends on the platform.
For Facebook and Instagram news feeds, ads are consumed with the sound off. That means you must caption your videos so that people can actually read the ad as it plays, not just watch it.
On vertical formats like Snapchat, TikTok, and IG stories, ads tend to be viewed with sound on. Test with and without captions to see what gets better engagement.
Remember to ask yourself, “Do captions make this easier or harder to understand?”
Have you ever wondered why every big DTC brand looks the same?
In her fantastic article “Will the Millennial Aesthetic Ever End?” Molly Fischer writes:
“On a basic level, the visual experience of a phone favors images and objects that are as legible as possible as quickly as possible: the widely acknowledged clichés of millennial branding — clean typefaces, white space — are less a matter of taste than a concession to this fact.”
In an environment where attention spans are measured in milliseconds, the point of your ad must be instantly understandable. Your target customer must get the point of the ad from the jump, and the ability to do this is often contingent on the clarity of your text.
That’s why your brand needs to “fit” your social media strategy. If your style guide conflicts with paid social best practices, change it.
In the previous three steps, we’ve been gathering the right information — the what, the who, and the where.
Now it’s time to get our ingredients together and cook:
Offer isn’t synonymous with discount. An offer — the almighty offer — is the sum total of your product(s), price, and positioning.
Put simply, it’s the art of making the price feel right. So how do you make it feel right? Let’s go back to the Slick example.
Broken down to its component parts, Slick’s core offer is:
Does that sound like a fair trade? Maybe, maybe not.
The simplest way to tweak this is to play with the actual product you get for the price. Our most successful offer here was this:
Still, playing with the actual product and price only scratches the surface — and your desired profit margin often dictates the price, anyway.
The better way to improve your offer is also the most crucial for long-term success: make the product feel like it’s worth that price.
To our target audience, this sounds better, right? We’ve positioned the product as a solution to a functional problem that’s unique to off-road riders.
Can we make it even more attractive? Absolutely.
To a ride-or-die offroader, with both functional and identity problems to solve, this is starting to seem like a pretty good offer.
Your social media advertising strategy is now about bringing the offer to life.
Obviously, your ad isn’t going to be a paragraph like the one written above. In order to make the offer compelling, you’ll have to figure out the best mechanism:
The above is only one way to frame up the offer. This exercise should be a jumping-off point for creative thinking about how you tell your story.
It’s up to you to determine which parts of the story go and how to present them. Whether you do an influencer giveaway, incorporate your content marketing into the funnel, or create a bunch of memes and run them as Twitter ads — there are infinite ways to make every part of your offer pop.
The rest of the steps in this section are tools to help you construct that hierarchy.
In Breakthrough Advertising, Eugene Schwartz introduces the concept of the five “States of Awareness,” which he defines as your target market’s “present state of knowledge about your product and the satisfaction that your product performs.”
What is the modern advertiser to do with these categories?
For the sake of this article, we’ll focus on levels 1-3. If you’re at levels 4-5, you’re probably not ready for paid social yet.
Less aware audiences need education. More aware audiences need urgency, a reason to buy right now.
Educate less-aware audiences with video ads.
Video content gives you the opportunity to mold your offer in such a way that they’ll become more likely to buy, or at least move up in terms of awareness level.
Signal more-aware audiences with still images.
Still images with copy are the most efficient way to get information across quickly.
A simple way to think about State of Awareness is through the lens of an inverted funnel: Your remarketing audience is Level 1, your retargeting audience is Level 2, and your cold prospecting audience is at Level 3.
Awareness can change based on product category. If you’re selling apparel, you probably don’t need to teach anyone about what a t-shirt is. If you’re selling a new way to shave, you’ll need more digital real estate to even get a click.
These examples demonstrate how creative types match with levels of awareness.
Level 1: Still image with clear offer or discount messaging.
Our remarketing audience knows everything they need to know about our product. The discount gives them a reason to pull the trigger.
Level 2: Video to demonstrate product superiority.
Our customer already understands what a compression sleeve is and why they’d need one. This ad example aims to demonstrate why Incrediwear is superior to competing compression sleeves.
Level 2 + 3: Still image with clear product shot.
The value of apparel is its appearance. Because people don’t need more information than that to click, prospecting and retargeting ads can be combined.
Level 3: Text-driven video that educates the consumer.
This video introduces a new product — shampoo in a bar — that solves common haircare problems in a unique way.
Level 3 (Take Two): Text-driven video that hooks with a familiar sight.
This product — a single-blade, metal razor — is unfamiliar, although it solves a common shaving problem. We used a familiar show, Shark Tank, to frame it.
Whether you’re building a video from UGC (user-generated content), creating explainer-style motion graphics, or shooting something high-quality in the studio …
All great social media content relies on the first three seconds to hook an audience.
Here are some quick starting points for thinking about hooks.
At CTC, we like to say that “the two most important factors in whether a person buys your product are price and a recommendation from a friend.”
Price, you can control.
But how do you approximate the recommendation of a friend in your ad creative?
Include social proof. Social proof could look like:
The idea here is to put an unbiased, authentic opinion in front of your customer.
With steps 1-4 out of the way, you can construct your full sales sequence — essentially, the script to the ad you’re creating.
Hook: The punchy, attention-grabbing line that’ll reel your audience in.
Product introduction and benefit: Show the product, if you haven’t already in the hook.
Social proof: See the previous section, “4. Gather Social Proof.” This could be a carousel of five-star reviews.
Additional benefits: Flesh out the ways the product solves key problems.
Additional proof: Add more social proof.
Call-to-action: Let the customer know what to do next.
Yep, we even made you a visual for easy reference
Great creative drives action.
This is a paraphrase of David Ogilvy’s famous dictum, “If it doesn’t sell, it’s not creative.”
The reason we prefer the paraphrase is that it’s the most helpful way to visualize the effect an ad is supposed to have: behavioral change.
Your ads should get somebody to stop their thumb from scrolling. It should get that same person to stay glued to their phone. It might even get them to say to their partner, “Hey babe, check this out,” across the dinner table.
Then it needs to make them tap the link.
Your ad is a message to a real person, intended to cause their synapses to move their hands in a certain way. To cause a series of thoughts to cross their mind. Sounds like magic, right?
Remember, ROAS can tell you if an ad is working. It can’t tell you why.
Purchase is the ultimate action we want to drive.
But what about all the actions we have to drive before someone makes a purchase? We believe that measuring those leading indicators gives us a better window into the why.
To do that, we use a system of metrics that tell us how people experience our creative. That system is AIDA: attention, interest, desire, and action.
AIDA is one of the oldest behavioral models in the world. First formulated in 1898, by ad executive E. St. Elmo Lewis, it covers the series of effects an ad should have on a consumer:
AIDA in action: Miracle Brand case study
Miracle Brand makes silver-threaded, bacteria-killing bed sheets. Great product, boring message.
Considering that Miracle was new to the space — and playing in a very crowded field — we knew we had to make more of a splash.
Miracle’s original ad library consisted of beautiful content — that didn’t differentiate the brand in the feed.
Using AIDA, we determined that only 11% of people were stopping on their ads, which made it clear that their ads were failing to do their #1 job: to stop people in the feed.
Enter the Queen. To stop the scroll, we created a character to speak for the brand — an aloof monarch who uses Miracle Sheets because they’re the only brand clean enough for her perfect royal skin.
We saw each of our key metrics jump, and ROAS followed suit.
Despite those lifts, we were still below target.
So we decided to make the ad better.
We created a brand-new beginning — where the Queen shouts at the viewer. And it jolted people out of their scrolling stupor. Higher click-through rate, more cost-effective.
If we’d simply turned off the ad based on ROAS alone, we would’ve left a great ad unrealized.
Thankfully, we measured the components of the ad, and adjusted for leading behaviors, we were able to rescue it and transform it into something great.
If AIDA is the way to measure ad performance, then what are the variables you can tweak to affect these numbers?
The net result of testing your creative variables through the lens of AIDA is a successful ad campaign: one that provides actionable, valuable info, no matter what.
To quote Eugene Schwartz one final time:
“Analysis is the art of asking the right questions and letting the problem dictate the right answers.”
That’s the antidote to the Facebook advertising algorithm. Even though we didn’t cover them, that antidote applies to optimization on Twitter advertising, LinkedIn advertising, TikTok ads … any data-driven marketing channel you want to explore.
Follow the five steps and you’ll have everything you need to build your best social media campaign ever: a creative machine that provides you the right answers, again and again.
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Richard is the Senior Copywriter at CTC. He's also a former creative strategist, branding manager, and church organ builder. Connect with him via Twitter or Email to talk all things brand, copywriting, and DTC creative.