How to Hack Facebook Ads Down to $0.005 Per Click

Josh Sturgeon Facebook Advertising, Social 49 Comments

Note: This was a fun experiment. For science :). No client accounts were used in this test. It’s powerful, but use discretion!


Facebook is a powerful way to give your content more exposure. But it can also drain your bank account faster than you can say, “Zuckerberg”!

Promoting content at scale is a challenge for many of our clients. So recently, I decided to run an experiment here in the UpWord innovation lab that aimed to drive down the cost of Facebook advertising.

Could we bend and break the FB ad platform to our will?

The results are in.

The Idea

Facebook ads work as an auction, much like Google Adwords. This means that the laws of supply and demand are at play.

With Google Adwords, some keywords will cost more per click than others.

Where Facebook targets people, some people cost more than others to reach (feels a little weird to say, but it’s true).

It all comes down to value. Certain keywords deliver more sales to advertisers, which ramps up the bidding competition. Same thing applies to different audience segments on Facebook.

The Experiment

The goal was to get cheap engagement on Facebook to boost the visibility of our content.

I used one of my “experimental” websites to hedge against any risk. The content I promoted was a case study about web hosting.

It was a fresh angle on a tired topic, but not groundbreaking work by any stretch of the imagination.

Step 1: Choosing the Audience

First, I needed to find a market of high supply and in low demand. By supply, I mean a large target audience. By demand, I’m referring to a market where few advertisers are competing for placement.

low demand

Why is the demand low for these countries?

I can’t say with 100% certainty, but I imagine that it has something to do with low purchase intent.

These countries have a comparatively lower English speaking population. They also, on average, have comparatively less disposable income. So it stands to reason that advertisers care less about spending money to reach these people because the expected pay off is less.

Next, I selected interests that would be a good fit for the case study I was targeting. This included interests like “SEO” and “Online marketing”, but also included followers of various related thought leaders.

This helped us work with a more discrete segment of the target population, which came in handy later for the second experiment.

Step 2: Setting up the Ad.

Knowing that the majority of my audience was skewed male, I chose a lovely (tasteful) stock photo of an attractive female.

Hey, we’re optimizing for click-throughs here!

Here’s what the ad looked like:

ad preview

Simple and to the point.

Step 3: Boost the post

With my audience set up and post published, it was time to test. I used the “boost post” feature for ease of use, but could have easily run a standard news feed ad to get the same effect.

The Results: Can anyone split a penny in half?

Within hours of boosting the post, two things stood out:

1. Yes, the audience was decidedly male

dudes

2. My economics professor wasn’t lying. High supply and low demand resulted in rock bottom prices.

results

After spending $6.77, the post received 939 direct engagements (clicks/likes), with a total of 1,137 likes. That means that we received at least an additional 198 likes from the resulting organic reach (free).

It’s not hard to run the math on this and see that we paid $0.005 per post engagement.

That’s half of a penny per engagement.

At this point, we reached the goal. We got cheap interaction and visibility on Facebook.

But to what end?

What am I supposed to do with thousands of likes from Indonesia? It’s not driving leads, sales or any perceptible business value.

That’s where part two comes in.

Experiment #2: Jedi mind-tricking a different audience

“Social proof” is a powerful psychological concept. It’s why we advise our clients to gather testimonials from real customers. It’s why we show off logos of well known brands who use our product or service.

People can’t resist jumping on a bandwagon.

I hypothesized that the 1,137 likes could give us an advantage when it came to running a legitimate campaign targeting a high demand audience.

Step 1: Identify the high value target audience

This time I wanted to target the high demand, high competition countries, while using the same interest targets.

high demand

I want to stress that labels like “high/low demand” are overgeneralized. There are exceptions to every rule. I’m just referring to how the math plays out in this particular auction, not making a judgment call on the value of these particular markets.

Step 2: Split test the boosted posts

We served two different versions of the post and boosted them each to the “high demand” audience.

split test

The only difference between the two ads was the 1,137 likes that we picked up from the first experiment.

The Results

After two short days of running the second experiment, we had noticeable results.

results compared

Although the total sample size isn’t that large, the trend is hard to ignore. Even with a wide margin for error, the post with “pre-loaded” likes received far more engagement than the post that started from scratch.

Specifically, the post with likes saw:

  • 285% more engagements
  • 64% less cost per engagement
  • 300% more clicks
  • 920% increase click-through rate

Again, the only variable we tested was the pre-loaded likes on the post. Everything else was held constant: the post text, headline, image, and Facebook page name.

How else can we apply this “hack”?

In no way am I advocating for anyone to inflate their “likes” and call that success. You would be doing yourself or your clients a major disservice.

The better question is, how can you leverage social proof to boost the effectiveness of your marketing?

Here’s a few ways I see it playing out, but would love to hear your ideas in the comments:

On-Page Trust
Thanks to the open graph, these social signals follow us around the web. Here’s what the top of the blog post looks like now:

social sharing buttons

The high count on social sharing buttons is a helpful trust signal for any user that lands on the page. I’d also recommend placing those social share buttons in close proximity to any call-to-action you have on the page.

Bring Scale to FB Ad Campaigns

Our experiment achieved a 64% lower cost per engagement. Even half that figure would give a significant advantage over the competition. It’s like having a 2 hour head start at the Boston marathon.

In a competitive ad auction, “priming” your ads this way can give you an edge. Ultimately, this also lowers your cost per customer acquisition and could make your advertising efforts exponentially more profitable.

SEO Benefit (?)

A study by Eric Enge back in 2013 appears to have debunked the notion that Facebook likes contribute to SEO performance. Although the study is compelling, it was not entirely conclusive.

I’m not ready to throw away social signals as a ranking factor (yet). I think it’s safe to say that they aren’t a major factor, but I’m not convinced that they don’t still have at least some influence on search visibility (a topic for another post).

That said, we know that even indirectly, social proof could help contribute to the “linkability” of the content. That is, human readers consider the page more trustworthy based on its social sharing results, which influences their decision to link to it.

What’s next?

I have my low-cost test audiences saved and plan to use these “primer” campaigns in the future with more ad spend to see if the results do, in fact, scale.

To build that audience – be it a low-cost test audience or your exact target – use our customizable Facebook Targeting Guide as your starting point to save time and headaches.

Is this crazy? How else could this pay off in the context of a larger marketing campaign?

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UPDATE: Some of our readers have brought up a great point and I think it makes sense to add an extra word of advice before you try this out.

When targeting low-cost countries, it’s likely that you will pick up a number of likes for your page (even though it wasn’t the primary goal). When I ran the experiment above, we picked up about 50 page likes.

If you start to accumulate a lot of low quality likes on your page, it can hurt your reach, as these un-targeted folks (bots?) cannibalize the visibility of your future posts.

This is an easy fix. Go to your Facebook page and click Settings > Banned Users, then select “People Who Like This Page”.

page likes

From here, you can remove recent likes from your page. Took me about 60 seconds. Just make sure you do it right after the “primer” campaign is finished, so that you don’t have to guess at who came in from the experiment.

Josh Sturgeon

Director of Innovation at UpWord. Lover of overstuffed burritos, winter surfing and building things that make life a little sweeter. Connect with me on Twitter!

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Josh SturgeonHow to Hack Facebook Ads Down to $0.005 Per Click

Comments 49

  1. William Harris

    Very nicely done! I’m inclined to try this out myself – but just curious – did it cause you to gain some “followers” from those other countries? Since most of those ads, when the audience doesn’t already like your business, Facebook puts a “Like” button in the upper right hand corner of the ad. Just curious if that has skewed your audience at all – thereby hurting future performance and segmentation. But seriously – very nicely done!

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      Josh Sturgeon

      Hey William! Thanks for reading.

      We did gain a handful of followers (from other countries) during the first experiment. But I don’t think it had any negative impact; the second experiment had a higher relevance score, plus all of the gains in CTR and CPC.

      Will keep an eye on that!

      1. Matt

        Hi Josh,

        I think you have to be careful advertising to these ‘less in-demand’ countries because the accounts from these countries, may like your content/page and never interact with you again after that.

        This leaves your Facebook page vulnerable to getting less engagement in the future.

        This video from Veritasium may help explain it better: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVfHeWTKjag

        But nonetheless, interesting experiment.

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          Josh Sturgeon

          Hey Matt – thanks for sharing that video (side note: the production was really creative).

          The caution that you and William bring to the table here is super helpful. I’m going to make an update to the post in a bit.

          I think it’s also relatively easy to mitigate the risk.

          As a byproduct of experiment #1, I picked up less than 50 page likes from the lower value countries. We can go in and remove those page likes in about 60 seconds (Settings > Banned Users > Remove Users) to prevent any dilution.

          I could see this being a lot harder to do if someone went crazy with their “primer” campaign and attracted thousands of page likes!

    2. luigi

      Yes, it does, I tried this at a brands friend, basically to get some social validation likes and interactions and it actually performed very good, 0.01 cents +4k likes, +-10% organic from that countries and growing, without nothing more than an ad with a stock image and a decent ad setup. I will try to get the 1/2 a cent!

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  2. Claire

    Really interesting post. Would be interesting to compare performance across other platforms with a similar model. Have you tried this hack anywhere else?

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      Josh Sturgeon

      Thanks, Claire! Haven’t tried other platforms, but theoretically, they are all running on a similar auction model. I’m going to try Twitter next, but let me know if you beat us to it!

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  3. Syed Azam

    This is very interesting. I am going to ask a simple – may be stupid – question. How one creates an ad from a previous post which is liked by others?

    Syed Azam

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      Josh Sturgeon

      Hey Syed – It’s actually a great question. I just boosted the same post to a different audience. Then I duplicated the article (to get a fresh URL) and created an identical post to boost that didn’t have the likes.

      1. Ahmed

        Hi Josh, thanks for this amazing tip, continued to Syed question, I didn’t understand your answer well, Let me tell you what I understood, #1 boost post to cheap country #2 boost the the same post to more engagement country .. now what do you mean by (Then I duplicated ….. ) .. Thanks a lot

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          Josh Sturgeon

          That’s it, Ahmed! Use the same post and just boost it to two different audiences.

          I was telling Syed how I ran the split test for this experiment… I created a duplicate article on my blog with a different URL so that it didn’t carry over all of the likes from the boost to a cheap country. I can see how that was confusing 🙂

          1. Ahmed

            So, you edit the url of fb post to the new url, then re-boost to the new audience , right 🙂

  4. Balint

    I am sorry but I strongly disagrees with this purpose. First you targeted countries where most likes are coming from bots. Why is it so cheap to advertise there and why is it so expensive to run a campaign in the US? Because in such Asian countries people are paid for clicking on Facebook ads so no right-minded person or company would spend a penny on advertising there.
    I understand that your purpose was to get a lot of cheap likes so you could boost that post with greater success which you managed to do but what was your result? With $0,47/click you paid $9,87 for 21 engagements after spending $6.77 for 1100 engagements (~$16,5 all in all). Without those fake likes you would have paid ~$25 for the same number of engagements so you achieved your goal but can you effectively make money for advertising for such a high CPC?

    Furthermore if you advertise in those countries, the more fake likes your page will receive and your posts will reach less people who would pay for your product/service.

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      Josh Sturgeon

      Hi Balint – thanks for chiming in. I’d encourage you to take a look at the comments above between myself, Matt and William. It’s relatively easy to remove low value likes from your page immediately after running the campaign.

      The main takeaway of the post is that we paid about $6 for social proof that made our main campaign more efficient.

  5. Engr Wasim Khan

    Nice try at all… One more thing, if you go with a proper niche and related FB page.. You may get website click for less than $0.05. (but keep an eye on the ad revelence score.. The more the score, the less the cost…)

    1. Affilate Guy

      I agreed with you.

      Why aim for spammy countries when you can create ads that get clicks between 0.01-0.05, and target your demographic?

      You need to test more creative, and get the right formula between header/call to action/image.

  6. Michael

    Hello Josh,
    First time I’ve come across your site.
    I’m impressed, good information.
    I like this study particularly and I’m going to try
    it out starting this weekend.
    I’ll get back when I have some results to share.
    Regards,
    Michael

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      Josh Sturgeon

      Look forward to seeing your results, Michael! Feel free to comment here or give me a shout out on Twitter (@joshuasturgeon)

  7. Areful Eeslam

    That’s a nice analogy. I didnt think of getting some likes like that could actually reduce the targeted engagement cost. And this actually could be utilize in multiple way.

    Thanks for sharing

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  8. Ron Schmidt, CEO

    Josh,

    Great article. We’re working on several FB campaigns and we’re interested in keeping our costs as low as possible because we’re fundraising for several charities.

    How would we hire you and or your staff to help us keep our CPC to a minimum?

    Easiest way to reach me is 920-544-3605, my cell,

    Best regards,

    Ron Schmidt, CEO

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  9. Alvaro Pizza

    Josh:

    It’s not neccesary to delete the people who like your page in far away countries. Just segment your post to the countries you want the post to reach.

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      Josh Sturgeon

      Thanks, Alvaro. That’s definitely an option. We just decided to go all the way with clean up. It also gives us the chance to have visibility in those countries in the future (organic or paid) without losing reach.

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      Josh Sturgeon

      Thanks, Terry! I haven’t tried this with mobile app installs, but do think that it could have similar results. You can still boost social proof (likes) on the ad unit, which could in turn improve click throughs to the app.

      Let us know if you try it out!

  10. JD

    Dude! This is the most interesting and smartest piece on social media marketing I’ve read in months! Happily signing up for more 🙂

    As to the new unwanted page likes – I think there is an easier way to deal with them. Just keep organically targeting your posts to your preferred audience.

    Keep it up!!!

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      Josh Sturgeon

      Thanks, JD! And great tip about the organic targeting. I just decided to remove them from the outset (OCD I know) so that we didn’t burn any bridges with one particular country. Your way is definitely easier though!

  11. Pim

    Great post, thanks!

    Many likes, but what about comments? Didn’t the first post receive lot’s of non-english comments because of the tatgetting?

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      Josh Sturgeon

      Thanks, Pim! We didn’t receive any comments from the first test. But had we received comments in another language, it would be easy to remove them from the post as an admin of the page.

  12. Jorge Fonseca

    Hi Josh,

    What was the reach on each of the ads? (The one with the “Pre-loaded likes”, I guess you would have to subtract the reach from the low income targeting)

    I think it’s relevant to truly compare both campaigns

  13. mikhail

    Why block the likers individually that will take too much time. You can just block the countries on the setting so the organic post won’t show up on the countries and you still keep the number 🙂

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      Josh Sturgeon

      Good suggestion, Mikhail! Some folks may want to still target those countries (after all, real people DO live there, not just bots :-). That’s why I decided to delete what may be bogus likers. Your way is faster though.

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      Josh Sturgeon

      Thanks, Carl. You’re paying Facebook money to run two different campaigns so I don’t think they will be inclined to put a stop to that 🙂

  14. Arthur Wilson

    Hi Josh,

    This is genuinely a very interesting post! The idea that you can preload Facebook content with likes before starting a boost campaign aimed at generating real engagements is new to me but seems to work here.

    Interested to try it out for myself!

  15. O' Joseph Fakayode

    Interesting hack and experiment. Another twist is to do it within the same geography but different profiles. So choosing an easy to engage audience to influence a tougher audience within the same geo.

  16. Josh Muccio

    Hey Josh, great post. And excellent experiment!

    So I’m currently doing this experiment on this post, and getting similar(ish) results. https://www.facebook.com/thepitchvc/posts/904191059670105:0

    I targeted it to people in those exact 5 low competition countries, and I targeted people who are interested in ‘podcast’ (Since I run a podcast)

    But I actually tried to make the segment more useful than just for social proof. I targeted people who are English (all) speaking in these countries AND who are using an iOS device.

    Since it’s easier for people on iOS to subscribe to podcasts. It’s hard to measure the click-through’s as I promoted a photo post instead of a link post, but I think that it may have actually resulted in new podcast subscribers.

    Thanks for the inspiration! I’ll try the experiment again with a regular link post in the future. And use a URL shortener for tracking purposes.

    Cheers man! Thanks again.

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