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A Facebook ad is one of two things

Head of Product

It almost feels like Facebook keeps adding new ad types by the week, and keeping up with them all easily becomes confusing and frustrating. This is a shame, since it’s actually quite simple if taking a step back.

First of all, Facebook essentially has two ad formats: Ads and Sponsored stories. Unfortunately ads is bit of an ambiguous term, but that’s what they’re called.

If you were to add up all different variations of these two you’d end up with lots of different ad types, but I think that’s missing the point.

What’s important: Ads and Sponsored stories.

Ads are the voice of you – the marketer – while Sponsored stories are the voice of all the people interacting with your brand on Facebook.

Adverts in the ads category are thus created by you. You control the content of the ad and also to whom it is delivered. Examples of ad types in this category are

  • Standard ads – the classic ads on the right hand side of Facebook
  • Page post ads – organic page posts which have been promoted

In the case of sponsored stories, the content is the organic story. Therefore, the content of the sponsored story depends on what kind of story you’re sponsoring. Examples are stories about

  • People liking your page
  • Checking in at your place
  • Using your app

A sponsored story can only be delivered to friends of the person who created the story. That is, just like how organic stories work. You would never see a story created by someone you’re not Facebook friends with in your News feed, just like you would never see a sponsored story from that person.

You can still fine-tune and segment your audience however, using the same targeting criteria as for ads. Use interests, age, gender, location and so on to reach the right people among those eligible to see your sponsored stories.

The practical difference between Ads and Sponsored stories

Practically, the distinction between ads and sponsored stories is quite significant. Generally speaking, I’d say ads are used to start a process of some kind, and sponsored stories to reinforce that process.

Take page posts as an example: turning them into page post ads sets you up for achieving reach, and with that comes engagement, provided that your content is any good.

Sponsoring stories about people liking, commenting or sharing your posts amplifies that engagement, but they are useless unless you have some baseline of engagement to sponsor. This in turn depends on reach, which is why you need page post ads to start with.

The same logic applies to Facebook apps. Without people using an app it’s impossible to sponsor stories generated by it, since there won’t be any. Running ads is the way forward to help people find the app and start using it.

But if you have great organic reach for your page posts you don’t need page post ads, and if you already have lots of engagement then no need for sponsored stories, right? True, at least to some extent. I do however think this scenario is fairly uncommon.

Even for brands with massive follower bases that have high organic reach and engagement, I’d like to examine the effect of sponsored stories to see the degree of amplification they could achieve. The effect of sponsored stories is for obvious reasons dependant on how many organic stories there are.

Final note: This post has focused a lot on engagement, and it’s a term thrown around a lot. It’s probably worth noting that it’s rarely (never?) the higher objective. It’s a means to an end, but more about that in another post.

[Update]

See Why we value engagement on Facebook for a follow up to this discussion.

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I hope this quick run-through has provided at least some clarity on how to think about the different ad types. If you want to read about the different ad formats in more detail, see our Guide to Facebook ads.

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