For a bootstrapped founder, taking first steps into scaling marketing through the paid ads can be scary. The competition is often fierce and without precise understanding of ad performance. Understanding ad performance and being able to adapt based on the initial customer feedback to your offering often defines whether the campaign will make it or break, never delivering profitable results.
Using built-in ad platform reporting is a first port of call for many, however, it often results with conversions being underreported and, as a consequence, some marketers choose to rely on standalone analytics for conversion / RoAS reporting. While these have their place, using ad platforms directly comes with benefits of deeper understanding of audiences and customer segments, as well as driving ad platforms' AI to better optimise your ads.
In this article we'll discuss how to fix missing conversions in ad platforms, how to send conversions to ad platforms, especially ones that happen outside the browser, when an integration with conversion APIs is beneficial and how conversion reporting works in ad platforms.
Why use ad platform reporting at all
The easiest way to evaluate performance of marketing channels is to use Google Analytics or one of the specialised analytics/reporting software. These do a good job collecting data from disparate marketing channels (just make sure you're using UTM tags in ads even if auto-tagging is available - solves a lot of headache and data discrepancies down the line).
Conveniences come at a cost though, as using ad platforms for reporting conversions is beneficial: they offer advanced segmentation capabilities and AI-based conversion optimisation.
Using ad platforms' segmentation in most cases gives a much greater depth than external analytics or customer data software can provide. This is because ad platforms such as Facebook and Google have a lot of data about their users - and each click they direct to you. Consequently, they offer segmentation reports that are much deeper than anything you could do relying on your own data.
Reporting in ad platforms allows to segment audience by demographics, location, device type (Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/business/help/264160060861852, Google - https://support.google.com/google-ads/answer/10566573?hl=en ). Make sure you learn about platform-specific features. Facebook, for example, makes it easier to use multiple conversion events in the reports, as well as group conversions by users to report unique results, (https://www.facebook.com/business/help/1452248935049010) allowing to understand data and conversions throughout the funnel with more granularity. Google Ads allows adding affinity segments to Ad Groups with 'observation' setting, in effect, permitting to report which of the interests are more likely to convert (https://support.google.com/google-ads/answer/7365594?hl=en).
Why is this important? There might be segments in your selected audience that cost more than the others or are ones that are more likely to convert. While you could get some idea by doing customer interviews and adjusting ad audiences accordingly, the ad platform perspective is usually much more useful as you'd see how audience cost differs for each of these segments. Much of these data - such as what affinity segment Google Ads consider your conversions to belong to (and how cost per acquisition differs between them!), are simply not available elsewhere.
These data often have a "zero to one" impact on ad campaigns, defining whether you can advertise profitably at all.
Ad delivery optimisation is the natural consequence of getting reporting in order. Once ad platforms know who convert, they are capable of showing ads to users who are more likely to convert - which eliminates paying for useless clicks or impressions. Again, this is something no standalone reporting platform can provide, and your competitors are probably already doing this.
So what to do if you've installed tracking pixels and tags, but still don't have all conversions or have only some of them? Some post angry tweets (and write newspaper articles) about Apple endangering small businesses (https://www.ft.com/content/1959b06d-0a6e-4c37-9528-476f83626a86). In this article, we offer you better solutions.
What are the steps one can take to get the right (and correct) data into ad platforms?
Step number one is to make sure you have Facebook Pixel, Google Tag and similar tracking pixels installed on the website. Make sure that you're using the same pixel and tag identifiers that are selected in the campaign's optimisation goals! This is important because of the logic of ad platforms', which attempt to follow the entire path of the customers who convert (https://www.ablecdp.com/blog/know-about-conversion-apis#:~:text=How%20attribution%20algorithms%20work) in order to attribute all of them. If the landing page isn't tracked, whether because of incorrect setup or, say, a poor tag loading implementation after a GDPR consent is given, this will significantly reduce chances of ad platform attributing the conversion due to browser tracking restrictions.
Step number two is to send the conversions that matter to the tracking pixels and tags. Two considerations apply there: first, conversion window in ad platforms is limited. As a shorthand, at the time of writing this article Google Ads has a 30-day default that can be changed to up to 90 days (https://support.google.com/google-ads/answer/3123169?hl=en-GB), whereas Facebook is much more limited. Facebook originally announced (https://www.facebook.com/business/news/how-to-prepare-for-changes-to-facebook-ads-from-ios-14-update) that only 1 day click-through attribution settings includes modelled conversions (an euphemism used by ad platforms to describe how they track clicks from Apple devices and apps without unique click ids), which has been since expanded to 7 days (https://www.facebook.com/business/news/navigating-change-and-improving-performance-and-measurement). (Hint: for longer term conversions you can use offline conversion sets which, while not visible in the reporting outside of the attribution window, can still be used to build lookalike audiences for up to 180 days worth of conversions! https://www.facebook.com/business/help/1817351008517210) The modelled conversions using only browser data are only a part of getting the right data into ad platforms.
More recently, to supplement click identifiers, ad platforms rolled out extended audience matching capabilities that use personal data such as email and phone. Make sure the tracking pixels are set up to send them from lead forms (Google - https://support.google.com/google-ads/answer/10172785?hl=en, Facebook - https://developers.facebook.com/docs/meta-pixel/advanced/advanced-matching). or use conversion APIs, more on them later, as well as that you have accepted customer data usage terms in Google Ads and have correct conversions set up in the Facebook Pixel settings - otherwise ad platforms will ignore your conversions!
If you've done everything correctly, you should now see almost all of your online conversions right in the ad platforms' reports.
You'll still see discrepancy if you're measuring something like redirects to the 'thank you' page rather than lead or checkout form completions for example. In many cases conversions also happen 'offline' - such as the start of a paid subscription after trial, qualified CRM lead or a CRM sale, or perhaps a purchase that's done after a few email follow-ups - these are often unattributable to the original source because ad tracking cookies would be deleted by browser or a different device used than the one where the ad was clicked.
That's where conversion APIs come into play.
Conversion APIs. Measuring 'Offline' subscription and lead qualification conversions
It is very easy, however, to misconfigure the integration with conversion APIs, and some of the off-the-shelf integrations are particularly prone to that. Or simply don't send complete customer details as expected by ad platforms. If you're using a conversion API and notice data discrepancy, check for the following most common issues:
- Incorrect ad platform setup. This includes sending conversions that occur outside of the configured conversion window, not accepting privacy terms for customer match in Google Ads (which are needed even if you're not using Customer Match lists!), not configuring Facebook Ads for tracking IOS 14+ conversions (https://www.facebook.com/business/help/126789292407737) etc.
- Sending duplicate conversions. Sending the same conversion to both in-browser pixel and API would cause duplicates to appear in the reports. This should be resolved by selecting the method most appropriate for the given conversion even in the given funnel: if tracking cookies are expected to be always available to the pixel or tag, and it is configured to send enhanced customer match parameters, use of conversions API is unnecessary; it can be used if it simplifies setup if you're already using it for other events though.
- Using deduplication. This is the most counter-intuitive cause, especially as many off-the-shelf integrations feature deduplication: they send conversion events to tracking tag or pixel (for example, on a 'thank you' page) and then send customer details from the back-end with the same order id. What happens then, is ad platforms will only use one of the events you've sent, missing half of the data. Facebook's API is particularly prone to this (https://www.ablecdp.com/blog/two-reasons-why-your-facebook-conversions-api-integration-doesnt-work).
- Only sending half of data or using different pixels for browser tracking and conversions API. This is similar to the deduplication issue but is often done intentionally, such as when only a tracking pixel without enhanced conversion tracking is used, or an integration service such as Zapier is used to send customer emails or click ids to the ad platform. Efficiency of such approaches varies from funnel to funnel, but generally you should be expecting to only see 30-70% of your conversions as ad platform won't have enough data to attribute them!
Follow these three practical steps to prevent these problems:
- Decide which of the conversions can be tracked online, and which should be sent to API. Make sure each of the conversion events is only set to the appropriate destination.
- If you're implementing a conversion API integration with an ad platform such as Facebook, Google or TikTok, make sure you're tracking and sending all data the ad platform may need to attribute the conversion: click identifiers, browser identifier from the first-party cookie used by ad platform, customer match parameters such as email. (If you chose not to use conversions API for a certain conversion - verify that it's actually getting all enhanced customer match parameters that you have available.)
- Do not rely on deduplication to send additional customer data, as it tends not to work as expected. Use the same pixel in the browser and in the API to make sure all data is available to the ad platform for optimisation, but only send one conversion event twice. (Platform-specific life hack: Google Ads allows to send same conversion event via different methods but only use one for reporting and optimisation by designating it as primary conversion action, and the rest as secondary (https://support.google.com/google-ads/answer/11461796?hl=en))
With the right setup it's possible to get correct conversion data into ad platforms to analyse RoAS, compare performance of narrow audience segments and make sure you're maximising your ad returns by advertising to the right segments and letting ad platforms' AI to refine them further.
We've covered how ad platforms conversion tracking can be used for reporting and optimisation of ad delivery and how it is beneficial to using third-party reporting tools or manually running audience segment experiments. Then, we've discussed how to fix data issues in ad platforms by sending all customer details they expect to see for attribution to either tracking pixels or conversion APIs.
By Pavel Titov, Able Customer Data Platform (www.ablecdp.com) founder. Able is a next generation customer data platform created by marketers and entrepreneurs who wanted a simple and reliable way to implement first-party customer tracking in their funnels based on landing pages and web applications without having to program custom API integrations with Google and Facebook Conversion APIs, CRMs and payment systems. Able works with businesses in the SaaS, e-commerce and B2B industries, helping to seamlessly integrate data across domains and platforms, allowing for a deeper understanding of marketing strategy and customer journey.