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Relevance Versus Intent: How Facebook Is Flipping The Advertising Game

Posted April 22, 2016
4 minute read

An online advertising revolution is taking place.

Advertising touches people in one of two ways. Ads can interrupt users while they’re doing something else (known as “interruption marketing”), or they can be there when users are looking for them (known as “permission marketing”).

Interruption marketing tactics generally include all banner and display advertising, pre-roll video, and pop-ups. Permission marketing tactics include search marketing and, to a degree, social media and email marketing.

Interuption marketing, in other words, means showing relevant ads to people you think might be interested, but are not actively looking. Permission marketing means being available when it's someone's intent to purchase from you. 

Relevance versus intent.

Search marketing has historically generated the highest response rates and the best return on investment. That’s because it’s easier to convert a user who has the intention of making a purchase. 

But thanks to how Facebook is improving the ad experience (an experience relying primarily on relevance), this trend is starting to change.

It’s not (all) about size

With over 150 million users, Facebook is by far the most used social media platform in the United States.

User size alone does not guarantee a tremendous marketing opportunity, though. Several social media sites (Pinterest, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace) successfully developed large audiences but lacked a sophisticated advertising model. Sure, they generated ad revenue, but they didn’t change the game.

So if the size of Facebook's user base isn’t the key to achieving an effective ad platform, what is?

Why strong targeting and the right context changes the game

People love buying things, but hate being advertised to. Why is that? If buying a product is such an enjoyable experience, why isn’t the discovery of that product also enjoyable?

It’s because marketers have overloaded us with irrelevant advertising.

When a potential customer is interrupted by ads selling things they have no interest in, their time is being wasted. Marketers are interrupting an otherwise favorable experience. This creates bad associations with a brand and advertising in general.

But when an ad is precisely matched to its target market, the experience of seeing that ad is completely different. Despite the public’s general disdain for advertisements, we all occasionally see an ad that catches our attention and peaks our interest. Unfortunately for us, those moments are few and far between.

Facebook recognized this problem and fixed it. They did it through strong targeting capabilities and solving the context problem.

Laser Precision Targeting

The effectiveness of Facebook advertising begins with its targeting capabilities. Advertisers who have a very clear idea of their target market can reach them more directly than ever before. This includes targeting based on job title, interests, geography, age, demographics. If you want to target female HR professionals with families in California who are over 30, Facebook will let you.

This type of targeting ensures only the most qualified individuals see your ad.

Solving The Context Problem

Instead of slapping random ads alongside the content users actually care about, Facebook’s algorithms carefully place relevant advertising content within the Facebook timeline. Strict formatting guidelines ensures ads look and feel similar to the social content users are used to seeing. The result is a seamless experience between social content and advertisements.

The ads don’t feel out of place. Instead, they are a natural extension of the rest of the content. This solves the context problem.

The result

Facebook has slowly morphed into a hub of our social, intellectual, and commercial interests.

It’s as though they’ve created a personalized mall filled only with our friends, family, and stores catering to our specific interests. This creates a very different and very positive experience for the user.

And most importantly, it works for advertisers.

In the last twelve months, we’ve seen Facebook display ads generate more leads at a lower cost per acquisition than Google search ads for several of our clients. And we’re not alone. In 2015, advertisers spent $17 billion on Facebook.  

Facebook’s achievement has flipped the “permission versus interruption” argument on its head. Business can now achieve as good, if not better results by “interrupting” their potential customers, provided they invest the time to study the customer deeply. Facebook has proven that relevance can trump intent.


Search marketing is certainly not going away, but advertisers now have another effective channel for generating direct response. If nothing else, this reinforces the importance of trying new channels and never becoming complacent.

The world of digital advertising is always evolving.

Are you?

Topics Inbound Marketing

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