Facebook Ads vs Adwords: Which One Is Better For Growing Your Ecommerce Store?

"Where should I dedicate my PPC budget, Facebook or Google?" It's a question I often get asked by our Ecommerce clients. It's a fair enough question. Every Ecommerce store has a limited budget for testing new paid traffic channels. Of course, where we want to get is that place where the PPC campaign funds itself, generating a healthy positive return for every dollar spent on ads. At this point it's no longer a question of "how much can I afford to spend" but rather "how much more traffic like this can you get me!?" But, when you just start out, you're probably not generating a positive return on your advertising spend yet and so budgets must be limited and in comes the question of whether you should spend it on Adwords or Facebook Ads.

To answer this question properly we first need to go back to basics and understand the fundamentals of how these platforms work. We also need to talk a bit about wider concepts like the online marketing sales funnel and the customer journey. Only after we've gone over these concepts can we put it all together and figure out where you should be investing your budget.

Google Adwords

Bear with me here. I know most of you reading this probably know what an Adwords ad is and what it looks like. But we do need to go over some fundamentals here if we're going to be able to answer the central question of this article.

When someone clicks on to Google and types something in to the search box, they have just entered in a Search Query and will expect Google to now show them results that are relevant to that query. If their query displays commercial intent (e.g. "buy sneakers" or any other query that suggests the searcher wants to buy something), Google will likely decide to show them some results that are paid ads. Those paid ads will often be at the top of the results and they will almost always be very relevant to what the user is searching for, thanks to Adwords' built-in mechanisms for ensuring that advertisers only advertise on search queries that are relevant.

An example Adwords ad

An example Adwords ad

So ads only appear on relevant, commercial search queries when a user is in a "searching" frame of mind. These are important things to remember when comparing Adwords to Facebook Ads. Adwords is a great platform to be on when you have a product that people already know about and you want to generate sales as quickly as possible. When people go online to buy something, typically their first action is to go to Google and search for that product. They are thus demonstrating a high level of purchase intent, so of course you would want to get your product in front of them by showing them an Adwords ad, right?

But, within this same dynamic lies its downfall: with Adwords you can only reach people who are already searching for your product (or type of product)! People can't search for something they don't know about. This means that Adwords falls flat on its face when your goal is demand generation, as opposed to servicing existing demand. So while conversion rates on Adwords can be very high, thanks to the fact that this is where people go when they are in the mood to buy, the potential for scaling your ad spend and revenue massively can be somewhat limited when compared to other traffic platforms. Furthermore: Adwords suffers as a platform choice when you have a totally new thing, something new and awesome that no-one has heard about yet. If no-one has heard about your thing yet, they aren't going to be searching for it on Google.

I like to think of it like this: Adwords is a "pull" platform. It works brilliantly for pulling in existing demand for an established product or type of product. But if you need to increase the size of that existing demand, or if you want to create the initial awareness that leads to demand in the first place, that's where a "push" platform comes into play, if you want massive scale though you need to be able to generate demand using a "push" platform. And so we move on to...

Facebook Ads

Oh hello, Facebook Ads, "push" platform extraordinaire! We all know what a Facebook Ad is and looks like, right? To recap, FB ads often look a little something like this:

example of facebook ads in news feed.png

Facebook Ads appear in users' news feeds on desktop and mobile as well as the right hand column on desktop. They'll usually have a link to a website where the user can click to learn more or possibly buy or sign up for something.

Facebook Ads are delivered and targeted based on the data that Facebook has on its users. A lot of Facebook users are under the mistaken assumption that Facebook is "free". It is not, you are "paying" for Facebook with your data. Every action you take in Facebook and every piece of information you give them is something they can sell to advertisers to help monetise their platform and continue to provide the great "free" service that they do. The data is in turn used by advertisers to show you ads that are as relevant as possible.

Because of this setup, we can consider Facebook Ads to be more of a "push" advertising platform. Users here are probably not in a "buying" frame of mind. They logged on to Facebook to see what their friends are doing, or share a cat video, or face-stalk their ex-lover's new lover, or any other number of other things. A common theme here is distraction and boredom. People come to Facebook looking for distraction and to avoid boredom. And we as advertisers now have the opportunity to "push" ads into their feeds and minds, and it doesn't matter whether or not they had ever been aware or in demand of our products.

This is a double-edged sword for advertisers. On the one hand, because we can access minds before they are even aware of our products, there is a potential for massive scale and volume on Facebook Ads that is often far beyond what we can achieve with Adwords. However, the rub here is that people do not want to be interrupted from their boredom/distraction cycle. As an advertiser, you need to be sufficiently informative, eye-catching, and/or entertaining if you are going to be able to interrupt people from what they really came to Facebook to do.

And therein lies a big drawback of Facebook Ads: you can't afford to be boring. This makes it difficult for stores that have boring, everyday or unsexy products. They either need to find a way to make it entertaining, which is hard, or they need to find a different ad platform altogether. On the other hand if you have a new, sexy, flashy, fun product, sometimes Facebook Ads can be a breeze as the product speaks for itself and just getting it out there in front of people's eyes is enough to get them interested. Think of those novel Kickstarter products whose Facebook ads go viral.

Because you can't afford to be boring, the gap between failure and success on Facebook Ads is huge. The same product advertised on Facebook Ads in two radically different ways, could on the one hand lead to runaway success and on the other hand total and utter, budget-swallowing failure. Facebook Ads are riskier than Adwords, but if you can get it to work you can access much greater scale. It's a classic risk/reward tradeoff.

Online Marketing Funnels & Customer Journeys

OK we've talked about some basics. Now let's get a bit more esoteric. Facebook Ads and Adwords have very different characteristics when you consider their place in the Online Marketing Funnel and the typical Customer Journey they take through that funnel.

Online Marketing Funnels

aida example funnel marketing.png

There are many different frameworks that can be used to describe the online marketing funnel but I like to use the above one, which can be snappily abbreviated to AIDA. This framework describes how a customer ends up purchasing your product. Before they can do anything they first need to be aware of a problem and a need for a solution. After this, they must have some interest in solving that problem by purchasing the solution. Once they have sufficient interest they will develop a desire to buy. After this point, if they are presented with the correct solution, they perform the action that we want them to, i.e. they buy your stuff.

Facebook, as a "push" advertising platform, fits really well into the top half of the AIDA funnel. We can push ads into the feeds of people who have never heard of you before, and we can thus create the awareness that was lacking in the first place. We can also move them through to the interest part of the funnel by serving them more content that further describes the solution, all its benefits and how much better it is than the alternative. In fact, to some degree Facebook Ads can operate at every stage of the funnel (as can Adwords), however the difference between the two is where they really shine. Facebook shines at the top of the funnel (Awarenss/Interest), whereas Adwords shines at the bottom (Desire/Action).

Once someone has a desire to solve their problem they are often now researching the solutions. This is the exact point where Adwords starts to shine, as people will often be researching on Google. When they finally want to act and buy something, Adwords shines again as they will often to go Google, type in the product or brand they they decided they want, and then go and buy something.

Customer Journey

The below customer journey diagram describes how someone might purchase a software solution but can just as easily be applied to Ecommerce products:

Image credit: ervinandsmith.com

Image credit: ervinandsmith.com

What's important to know is that your customers do not just see an ad, click an ad, then purchase right away. At least, they don't do that in the majority of cases. As described in the section above, they go through distinct stages in their purchasing journey, and at each stage of this journey they will see and interact with different ads and media. Along this journey, a customer may click 2 different Facebook Ads, 3 different PPC ads, an email newsletter, a retargeting ad, and they may do all this before arriving at the final hallowed event: the conversion. Different ad platforms and ad types can slot in at various stages of the journey, and different ad platforms shine in contrasting places.

Because of this, the question of "which is better, Facebook Ads or Adwords" can often be considered a false dichotomy. Often times, there is no "better" one and the true answer is "it depends" and "maybe you should do both!"


Okay okay, we both know what I did here, don't we? I baited you into clicking on my article with an overly antagonistic headline question and then I concluded by saying "well, it really depends" and "maybe do both?" But I think that most of you have learned something along the way. A lot of the clients I speak to are not accustomed to thinking in terms of customer journeys and online marketing funnels, and they thus don't see how Facebook and Adwords are two very different beasts.

Facebook Ads have the advantage of large potential scale and the ability to generate awareness and demand. They are also riskier in that you can't be boring and still expect to succeed. So, Facebook ads work best when you need to create awareness for a product that maybe doesn't get enough search volume, yet. They also work really well when you have a "sexy" product that looks awesome in pictures and is unique.

Adwords is a great platform to choose when there is existing demand for your products, and now you just need to ride that wave, scoop up some of that demand and generate some quick sales. You can't as easily create that awareness in the first place on Adwords, and your scale is limited by how many people already search for this thing, but the advantage here is that this is where you go when you want to find the people that already decided to buy something.

Ideally, you probably want to do both. Use Facebook Ads to generate awareness and get people interested in your solution in the first place. Then, be aware of the fact that their next step is probably to research a bit, often on Google, and make sure you are also showing them ads during the later stages of their customer journey using Adwords.