Who 'likes' my Virtual Bagels?

 

Rory Cellan-Jones explores the merits of Facebook advertising, by setting up a bogus bagel company online

For the past week, I've been running a very successful small business via Facebook. It is called VirtualBagel and more than 3,000 people from around the world have decided they "like" it - despite the fact that it does, well, absolutely nothing. But in running this non-existent firm I have learned quite a bit about the value of those "likes" prized by so many big brands, and the usefulness of Facebook's advertising.

When social media consultant Michael Tinmouth told me of his concerns about the returns his small business clients were getting from advertising on Facebook, I decided I needed to mount an experiment. Could I persuade Facebook users to click on adverts for an imaginary business and like it?

The idea for VirtualBagel was born from something my oldest son came up with many years ago, as he watched a picture download very slowly from the internet onto our first computer: "What if we could download doughnuts too?" So my business was going to be called VirtualDoughnut - until I realised I needed a copyright-free photo, and I had only bagels, not doughnuts to hand.

I set up a page, with very basic information: "We send you bagels via the internet - just download and enjoy." The fuller description talked of a dream of delivering virtual bagels over the internet to a world of virtual eaters. But nothing more.

Screenshot of VirtualBagel's Facebook page

Next, I created my first advert, which is a fairly simple process. You choose your objective - mine was to reach people who were most likely to "like" my page - how much you want to spend - I opted for $10 (about £6.50) - and where you want it seen.

I chose the United States, the UK, Russia, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. I narrowed it down slightly by targeting under 45-year-olds interested in cookery and consumer electronics, but was told that would still give me a potential audience of 112 million customers.

Then I pressed the button and waited. Within minutes people were starting to "like" my meaningless site, and within 24 hours I had 1,600 likes - and had spent my $10. Where were they from?

Screenshot of Ahmed Ronaldo's Facebook page

It seemed VirtualBagel was hugely popular in Egypt, Indonesia and the Philippines, but just about nobody in the US or the UK had any interest. And amongst my likers were some interesting characters, notably Ahmed Ronaldo. He was from Cairo - the city where my page is still most liked - but seemed to work at Real Madrid, and his profile consisted of nothing but pictures of Cristiano Ronaldo.

What was more interesting was what else he liked besides VirtualBagel - more than 3,000 pages, ranging from a retailer called Titchy Kitch London to Mr H Menswear to Pets World. What exactly was going on?

Over the next few days, I tinkered with my advert, removing a number of countries so that I was just targeting the US, the UK and India. The "likes" continued to mount, though very few came from the US or UK. After four days, my page was "liked" by nearly 3,000 people.

Then for one final day, I decided to advertise solely to UK Facebook users. The results were frankly disappointing - new "likes" slowed to a trickle. After spending a total of $60 (£40) VirtualBagel had built an audience in Egypt and India, but was not making an impact in the lucrative UK or US markets.

Facebook like sign

Then I sat down to analyse the results, with the aid of Facebook's adverts manager page. I'm a newcomer to the arcane world of online advertising metrics but one thing leaped out. When my advert was broadly targeted the click-through rate - the number of clicks on the advert divided by the number of times it was shown - was 0.55%. That had generated nearly 3,000 "likes" over four days.

But when I restricted the advert to UK users, the click through rate fell to 0.059% - about a 10th as many. And in the one day that advert ran, I achieved just 17 "likes" for my $10.

So, it seems that Facebook adverts can be very effective in generating interest in your business from certain countries but not in the US or the UK. And I think my experiment raises a lot of questions.

Who are these people in some countries who are clicking in an apparently random way on thousands of Facebook adverts and earning the network a small fee each time?

Is Facebook worried that there seem to be a number of fake profiles in certain countries generating fake "likes" and so devaluing the worth of its advertising system?

Is the network being as active as it should be in addressing a problem which is generating lots of revenue for its bottom line?

Now Facebook, it is important to say, feels my experiment is worthless because I have simply failed to target my advert in a way which delivers useful results. The company also says it sees no significant issue with fake profiles and is acting to discourage the practice.

The question you may ask is why does any of this matter? Well, Facebook has just arrived on the stock market with a valuation of $100bn, which was entirely based on the promise that advertising revenue will continue to grow from last year's $4bn.

So if advertisers - big or small - start losing confidence in what the Facebook platform has to offer, then that will be very serious indeed for the company's future prospects.

 
Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 52.

    I think Facebook has some big questions to answer here, if they charge you for an action they need to ensure the action is real. Google faced the same issue with click fraud and ended up refunding millions. Facebook ads are great for building passionate communities, as seen on pages like www.facebook.com/youfarm - online growing advice. Worked much better than google ads, because of the community.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 51.

    "I did a small test run for £10 and got zero likes."

    Well, it IS dance music...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 50.

    Money from air!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 49.

    "5. right_said_fred

    Are you surprised? These fake users are created by the advertising industry for their clients. It is another form of SEO."

    You clearly don't understand what SEO is-

    "Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine's "natural," or un-paid ("organic" or "algorithmic"), search results."

    Do your research

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 48.

    What this article fails to address is why someone would bother setting up a fake account and liking thousands of pages.

    It seems a lot of effort for no return, unless of course it is Facebook doing it.

    Sounds like a scam to me.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 47.

    I suspect these mysterious "likers" are kids in poor countries who just like the images of glamour and plenty in First World advertising. They might not have understood fully what the VirtualBagels ad was saying. When I was very young and we didn't have a telly (here in the UK) I used to cut pictures of televisions out of newspapers and magazines and pretend. Sad?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 46.

    I have started a small dance music record label called Lunartoons to release my own music and have tried FB advertising. I did a small test run for £10 and got zero likes.
    My distributor has a service where you can buy 'likes' which I guess is just fake accounts setup to make money. My guess is that the likes are worthless other than to give a perception to others of higher popularity.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 45.

    I think web advertising is still in its infancy so nobody really knows if this is the way forward. Email spamming doesn't work, there's no money in the pay-per-impressions model, cost-per-click only really works when people are actually searching for something rather than just browsing and I haven't yet heard one success story from this 'like' style of advertising.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 44.

    Buy Virtual Bagels!
    They're great!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 43.

    I raised the subject on a BBC message board of BBC using and linking programmes to Facebook . The more FB is investigated and exposed the more I am concerned about BBC linking its programmes to FB, particularly as these dubious practices are exposed. What else is FB doing/allowing and not telling us about? I hope the BBC is not tarnished by its association.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 42.

    I used to work for a large on-line clothes company and they had around 3-4 people designed to purposely create fake facebook accounts and write negative things on their Competitors pages and persuade people to not use them, and like most posts and pictures on their own page. In the company it was all hush hush... the boss's said it was all a part of the game...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 41.

    "Facebook adverts can be very effective in generating interest in your business from certain countries but not in the US or the UK."

    While many of the conclusions seem to be correct this one seems wrong since surely this just proves that advertisements to the UK need to be something worthwhile not a made up company meaning your going to waste significantly less money if you target the UK.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 40.

    38 Graphis

    The fact that it's their website gives them the right. It's only "your" business page in the loosest sense. All you've done is write some stuff on somebody else's website, subject to their terms and conditions.

    They may not be wise to go around reclassifying pages but, unless you've got a written contract to the contrary, I'm pretty sure they have the power to do what they like.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 39.

    Facebook 'likes' are just one part of a wider world of advertising and generating consumer interest. I'm really enjoying the Sony @XperiaUnleashed campaign on Twitter and Facebook. If something has a sense of 'fun' then people will engage with it. 'Likes' have to be part of a bigger picture.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 38.

    I discovered today that FB has "re-categorized" my business page as a "community" page. Without asking me or telling me beforehand! What gives them the right to tell the world my company is not a business, when anyone with half a brain can clearly see it is? I have drawn their attention to the fact that businesses did very well before FB, and I think we will do just fine without them.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 37.

    Why aren't the BBC reporting on the Wikileaks victory over VISA, does the BBC have any independence left anywhere, or is it just a propaganda machine for the government and its paymasters

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 36.

    Whoa!! How could you possibly call your VirtualBagel site "meaningless". Surely it makes a deeply philosophical Borgesian point about the disjuncture between the the joys and satisfactions gained in the ethereal world of the internet and the underlying suffering of the existential reality that serves as its mainspring.
    (;

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 35.

    People click for laughs. Most will look at it once, but never again. When one person clicks 'like', a message pops up on their friend's Facebook homepage. Some of these friends will, in turn, also click 'like' and then this process repeats itself. It's the same reason why the Facebook campaigns to get various songs to the Xmas number one spot have been successful.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 34.

    I'm an SEO consultant, and one Facebook company page I work with recently received hundreds of "likes" from fake profiles. I reported it to Facebook but haven't heard a peep back from them.

    There's also the problem of "black hat" marketers using bots to generate fake likes - lots of people are gaming the system, and Facebook seem reluctant to deal with it.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 33.

    Good story. Having messed briefly with FB ads ourselves, we came to the conclusion that there were ultimately untargetted banner ads on a system laden with bots. In essence, it was no more or less effective and useful than chucking a banner ad on, say, a newspaper website (which costs next to nothing, and achieves even closer to nothing than it costs).

 

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