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Facebook Ads vs Google Ads: Can Audience Network Really Compete?

For many years, Google’s AdWords and AdSense advertising networks have been as dominant in the display ad market as its search engine has been when it comes to looking up troubling medical symptoms or what that song you just heard on a TV show was. However, market dominance never lasts forever and a serious rival seems to have finally arrived for Google in the shape of Facebook’s Audience Network, which launched two years ago on third party mobile sites and apps and is starting to show signs of really competing for online spend. Will we see an epic ‘Facebook ads vs Google ads’ battle starting up?

Facebook has been making money off ads for years, of course, but traditionally Facebook’s ads have been on its own site and apps, simply monetising its social experience and selling its 1.65 billion users to the highest bidders. Audience Network has given it the chance to offer targeted adverts to those logged-in users while they use other sites and apps, thus expanding the reach each advert has, and it’s now taking it further by expanding it to desktop and opening it up to non-Facebook users.

Even before that change, there was positive news for Audience Network with a Q4 revenue of $1 billion, which may still only be a quarter of what Google made from AdSense in the same period but still demonstrates that there is room in the market for a rival, and Facebook certainly has the know-how to continue to maximise the growth it’s had recently. After all, how many think pieces have you read in the last five years supposedly signalling the death of Facebook? Exactly.

From Facebook’s point of view, a big change announced last month that it’s hoping will really push Audience Network over the top is the introduction of video ads. Video is increasingly important to Facebook in general, as demonstrated by the incredible success of the Chewbacca Mask Lady, a live video of Candace Payne from Texas wearing a Star Wars mask, which was viewed by over 140 million people in just a few days, a testament to both the viral potential of live video on Facebook and the mass of appeal of seeing someone really, really enjoying wearing a Wookie mask.

That video wasn’t actually advertising anything, at least deliberately, but still had a huge effect, ensuring that shops all over the world had a sudden rush of customers buying that Chewbacca mask, making it one of the most powerful accidental adverts of modern times. It’s not easy to recreate that kind of one-of-a-kind magic moment, but you can bet agencies will be trying and Facebook Audience Network offers the potential to do it with the addition of videos.

Brett Vogel, Facebook’s director of ad tech product marketing, told Marketing Week about this expansion to the Audience Network: “Brands are already using Facebook to drive video views and seeing lots of success. The Audience Network will extend this success by scaling campaigns into third-party environments. And by bringing the network to desktop we are allowing brands to advertise cross-device.”

Facebook also claims that its unique insight into its users can be leveraged (but, you know, in a non-creepy way) by brands using the Audience Network. Andrew Bosworth, VP of ads and business platform at Facebook explained: “Because we understand people in general, we can still use all the things we’ve learned about people-based marketing to apply and show them a relevant ad based on what information we do have. I think that is a huge competitive advantage relative to the hundreds of other companies doing this kind of work”.

It’s certainly hard to say that there are many other companies who have as much information about the people they advertise to as Facebook (and information given willingly) and that is why it’s been able to build up so much revenue from ads on its own website and apps. But if it’s advertising to non-users, how can that work? For now it’ll be charging the same price, but won’t include any non-users who it can’t find out enough ‘worthwhile information’ about from cookies, information searched for, etc.

Another potential advantage, even from off-site ads, is the ability to achieve brand goals as well as just direct responses, and the amount of data advertisers can get from videos will be expanding from the initial offer of simply view counts to include more brand measurements. That is a theme of what people are saying about Audience Network at the moment; that it already offers so much potential for successful campaigns, but is set to keep on improving.

So, should Google start to worry about AdSense’s dominance in the market starting to ebb away? At the moment it’s still hard to predict. Audience Network in theory offers better targeting and personalisation, but even if that can demonstrably deliver better results, it doesn’t mean that it will become the most popular online advert network, as history is full of ‘better’ products that didn’t capture their markets. AdSense has been running for 13 years now and its ubiquity is on its side for now.

The flipside to that is that people have been creating AdWords ads and using AdSense for so long with very little competition, and it’s a far from beloved tool, while marketers are well used to Facebook’s ads, so it is less of a leap than it might seem to make the switch. There are still questions about Facebook’s transparency when it comes to reporting, and while that remains the case, some advertisers will steer clear and stick to what they know.

However, Google surely knows that there’s a real threat to its ad crown, so you can expect both sides to be looking for ways to improve what they can offer, which can only be good news in terms of both innovations and costs on AdWords and Audience Network, meaning that the eventual winner may well turn out to be advertisers in general.

Are you tempted to give Audience Network a try after these latest developments, or do you think Google still offers the best tools for advertisers? Let us know in the comments section or via social media, and don’t forget to subscribe to the blog to receive more articles straight to your inbox.

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