Paid Social Performance TANKED in 2021 - Here are the Lessons We Learned

We’d been keeping up to date on all things iOS 14.5 related and could sense that paid social was about to change… it turns out, we had no idea how much it would change.

Paid Social Performance TANKED in 2021 - Here are the Lessons We Learned

There we were in April 2021 with healthy ad accounts and generally very happy clients. We’d been keeping up to date on all things iOS 14.5 related and could sense that paid social was about to change… it turns out, we had no idea how much it would change. 

Our personalised feeds and social groups blew up right around the beginning of June with news articles and blog posts begging for help from the paid social community and plenty of discussion about the PR battle between Apple and Facebook; one of which proclaimed to be the saviour of online privacy and the other, the guardian of small businesses. 


Meanwhile, at adaptive, we scrambled to implement the technical requirements that used to be “nice to haves” but had suddenly become crucial to maintaining performance. Most of you reading this will know that selling-in workstreams for the purposes of merely maintaining performance can be a tall order. 

Suffice to say, it was not the easiest of years for agencies or clients. However, the annus horribilis that was 2021 did teach us what it takes to maintain and even improve paid social performance in 2022. 

So with the benefit of hindsight, we’ve noted five reasons why your social ads probably didn’t perform very well in 2021; these are not your fault, you’re just a victim of circumstance. We’ve also provided three recommendations for areas that you can and should take control of to improve the performance of your social ads in 2022. Essentially, if you’re not already doing these three things you need to get on them now. 

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Not your fault:

  1. Apple’s App Tracking Transparency Rollout 
  2. Aggregated Events Measurement (SKAd Network)
  3. CPM inflation 
  4. User sentiment 
  5. Meta Madness

Your responsibility:

  1. Implement Signal-based Targeting
  2. Ditch the Generic Creatives, Utilise Communication Architecture 
  3.  Connect Technologies

1. Apple’s App Tracking Transparency Rollout 

This is at the centre of it all. On the 26th of April 2021, Apple’s iOS 14.5 operating system dropped with a new opt-out feature that allowed users to prevent apps from tracking their activity on their devices. Users started getting pop ups like the one above. And the jury is out with 79% of iOS users opting out of tracking as of Sept 2021 (down from 89% in April). To give you a sense of the scale, 98.5% of Meta users access their apps from mobile devices and 14.3% of all users use Apple’s operating systems. Meaning that the data from 300 million users is no longer accessible to the optimisation algorithms that use thousands of data points to serve ads to the right people and the right time. That’s an 11% loss, from the highest-value users. To add insult to injury, Meta was forced to report on user actions using the “StoreKit Ad Network” or SKAdNetwork, a “privacy-centric API operated by Apple” that aggregates events anonymously and posts them back to Ads Manager. More on this next.

2. Aggregated Events Measurement & the SKAdNetwork

Included in the App Tracking Transparency (or ATT) framework were a host of new limitations including, among others, the number of events that could be tracked. If you had any conversations with paid social practitioners during Q1 2021 you might’ve heard about all the prompts we were getting to set up various systems that were designed to support the new integration with Apple’s SKAdNetwork. One of those was Meta’s Aggregated Events Measurement tool, which required us to select and rank a maximum of 8 events to be used in campaigns. We also had to learn to live with a three day lag in performance data, a host of new reporting blind spots and constant reminders from Meta that metrics were most likely being underestimated. On top of it all, platform bugs were prolific and new features were launched only to be rolled back, suggesting that devs were up against it in the background, scrambling to get through a host of new workstreams while turning back to fix bugs. Reliving all this has given me anxiety so I’m going to move onto reason number 3… But hopefully you get the point - It was a difficult time for paid social. If you’d like to go deeper into the SKAdNetwork this blog post from Appsflyer is a goodie.

3. User sentiment 

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a large number of scandals, leaks, fines and even a few congressional hearings focused on social media corporations. The media and film industries have ensured that we are all kept in the loop about these “issues” and as a result, user trust is at an all time low. (Rightfully so IMO). Sentiment is difficult to measure at a performance level, however, it stands to reason that users who don’t trust a platform they’re using will think longer and harder before engaging with any content, let alone an advert. It’s like dealing with a particularly dodgy salesperson, you do what you have to to get a job done, but you won’t trust their recommendations or suggestions without a second, third or even fourth opinion.

4. Media Cost Inflation

Like nearly all digital ad platforms, social media publishers use auctions to determine which ads are served to their limited impression inventory. And like all auctions, the cost of the thing on offer differs depending on how many bidders are after the same item. I’m guessing I don’t need to explain the laws of supply and demand to you but when we apply these laws to social, we see that as the years go by and more advertisers enter the social ad space, competition for people’s attention increases. Bottom-line? The cost of advertising has increased and will continue to increase over the long term, albeit with short term fluctuations due to seasonality or something like a global lockdown. Death, taxes and since 1973, inflation.

Did you know that we can help you counteract media cost inflation? No? Well then, hop on over to read our latest article on CRO.


5. Meta Madness

Meta (Facebook)’s focus on Metaverse technology reveals how much they need user data to provide viable advertising solutions to businesses. Once Google follows Apple with their version of ATT, Meta’s thousands of data points will be all but wiped out. You’ll remember from earlier that 14.3% of people using Facebook and Instagram use Apple’s operating systems, well, most of the remaining 85.7% use Android. Let’s just say that the clock is ticking!

“This change will occur in phases, starting with apps running on Android 12 towards the end of this year (2021). It’ll expand to apps running on devices that support Google Play beginning in early 2022.” - Search Engine Land

Meta has no power over the policies implemented by the likes of Google or Apple. When you control the hardware, you get to call the shots when it comes to the software. Simple. And so it wasn’t a huge surprise when news broke that Facebook would be heavily focused on Metaverse technology… so much so that it actually changed its name to Meta. But why did Facebook decide to bet it all on the Metaverse? Well, you don’t enter the Metaverse via cell phones, you go in using a VR headset. Headsets like Oculus makes. Who owns Oculus/Quest? (It’s hard to keep up with all these rebrands, right!) You guessed it - Meta does. So, you can see why Zuckberg and company believe that this is the future. And they’re right, it is the future… Of Meta. They control the hardware so they control the operating system and the data points generated on their devices. Sounds like a good business move but what does this have to do with last year’s performance? To me, it's indicative of the Meta money-making machine having reached its peak and the company moving its focus to the next frontier. Which also suggests that Meta’s leadership no longer thinks that it makes business sense to invest in improving the current, complicated ecosystem that relies on cooperation from competitors. It’s the end of an era in more ways than one. So far we’ve covered five developments that happened last year and that created a challenging environment for paid social practitioners and advertisers who had planned to realise a healthy return on ad spend. Now, let’s shift our focus to the three areas that you can control and that, with a little work, will help you move the needle back towards positive ROAS.


So what can we do to combat these issues?

1. Implement Signal-based Targeting

Over the past five years, more and more performance advertising spend has moved to paid social due to highly effective ad targeting and optimisation algorithms. These features of social levelled the playing field somewhat by lowering the barriers to entry for small and medium sized advertisers. They closed the gaps between great performance and things like creative concepts, audience definitions, targeting, testing etc. So much so that we re-evaluated and re-defined our paid social proposition into seven key principles that extract the best results possible from social platforms Signal-based targeting is the first of those principles. This is a strategy that puts messaging in front of people at all stages of intent (unaware, interested, motivated to purchase etc.).

How we implement Signal-based Targeting
  • Intent Signals - We identify relevant intent signals based on your path to purchase, business category, channel and 1st party data.
  • Funnel - We build a bespoke funnel, with stages working both together and independently. Each stage is mapped out with different campaigns, optimisations and learning objectives. 
  • Relevance - We work on crafting relevant messages for each group, while planning for creative optimisation based on data rather than on the marketing manager’s gut feeling.


In a nutshell, we map interaction points to the stage of intent that it likely reveals so that we can put the most relevant message in front of each audience segment. 

2. Ditch the Generic Creatives, Utilise Communication Architecture

Signal-based targeting sets us up to craft appropriate messaging for people in each stage of marketing funnels. It’s no longer enough to serve action-based ad creatives to broad audiences in the hope that Facebook or TikTok’s targeting AI will find the people most likely to be interested. We have to do that work now and we do it by defining the job that each communication has at every stage of the path to purchase, followed by the creative concepts and variations that will do the job best. Relevance and performance have always been intrinsically linked so it’s time to ditch the catch-all creatives and really focus on your prospect’s point of view. 


3. Connect Technologies

Social algorithms live on data and as discussed already, they’ve been put on strict rations. Still, all this change is rooted in 3rd party data collection concerns. The data points generated on your owned media properties are classed as 1st party data and the social media platforms have made provisions for us to tell their servers when a desired action has taken place. Connecting technology is a surefire way of getting the most from paid social. Everything from your CRM, Conversions API, Offline conversions, e-Comm platform, product feeds and more besides can (and should) be linked to your social media channels to make up for the new blind spots. Adaptive has a world-class Business Intelligence team who build these data pipelines for our clients on a regular basis and they are game-changers for lead quality and AOV.

So, there you have it, The five reasons we got greyer in 2021 and three recommendations that you should address asap in 2022!

Get in Touch

If staying on top of the latest developments and making them work for your business sounds like a full-time job in itself, get in touch. Our consultants are always up-to-date with the latest developments in Paid Social, SEM, SEO, and Analytics, so if you need some help managing your performance marketing or need some specialist advice to get to grips with how to make the most of platform changes, contact us! 

Paid Social lead - lyle@adaptive.ie 

General enquiries - info@adaptive.ie


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