On this episode of Straight Facqts, we’re talking to Dara Denney who has staked her claim in the paid social game. We talk about TikTok Ads & UGC, what’s working in paid social, what’s not, trends that are going on, and what you should be doing if you want to be able to grow your audience with social media advertising. Let’s get into it.
Paid social is really like a free market too. If you have a bad story, no matter how much you think that story is good, the market does not care.
And it’s also hard to get that feedback. It’s not like someone’s going to knock on your door and knock on your ad and be like, “Hey, this is really bad. I’m not going to buy.”
You’re just going to hear crickets. But especially if you’re still trying to figure out product market fit, that’s just such a hard place to be with figuring out your messaging and figuring out your story.
“That personal story is often going to be something that people are going to connect with upfront.”
Which is why I often tell founders, if you’re just starting off and you’re in that product marketing fit haze, you really need to be telling your personal story — why you created the product or the service that you did and how much it means to you. Because that personal story is often going to be something that people are going to connect with upfront.
I actually just filmed an episode of my YouTube right before this call, and it was talking about how one of the most successful pieces of ad copy that I see are actually really big from the founder style diary entries about why they started their product.
Because that is something that people tend to really connect to and people also really like the behind the scenes of certain brands, even if it’s a brand they’ve never heard of.
Founders and business owners and CEOs, those are inherently people that we all respect as a society in many ways. So, that story from a founder talking directly from you is really impactful.
Heck yeah. Are you pushing founders now to make their own UGC content in a sense across paid social?
Absolutely. That’s one of the best types of ad creative that there is recently. I’d say that we’ve done really big production, high value HD type of shoots, and those perform well too, but oftentimes it’s just a founder getting in front of the camera that crushes it.
I actually have a founder that I work with. She just took a few of the TikToks that she was making on her own personal account and started running them on their Facebook account, and it became the top performer over the last month.
“It’s really about that storytelling and I just can’t emphasize enough that often founders are the best person to tell that personal story, especially when you’re just starting off.”
I was shocked because it took her 30 seconds to make, and now it’s the top performing ad creative. And she pays creators to make content for her every single month. So, it makes you wonder.
It’s really about that storytelling and I just can’t emphasize enough that often founders are the best person to tell that personal story, especially when you’re just starting off.
Yeah. Also, going for a high end production, there’s a chance that those are just going to flop and you’re just burning bad.
Oh, I’ve seen it too. Yeah, and it hurts. We have it down to a bit of a science now, but it’s still really hard to guarantee performance. We can try all the tactics that we have and make the best ad unit possible, but there is still a bit of an element of mystery of how your users are actually going to react to it.
It’s a really low risk way to get your product out there, to get your story out there and to get new ad creatives out there is just to turn on your iPhone and let it rip.
Yeah. I stole this from you. Using multiple hooks too.
Let’s say having the same sequence afterwards, but using multiple hooks so you can be able to best try to stop the audience from actually scrolling and paying attention.
Dara Denney: “If you haven’t gotten your audience to stop, then you’ve already lost the game.”
Yeah, exactly. What we often do is we will create an ad unit and we will create three different variations of it, taking the first sentence or the hook or the first three seconds of it and making it different. Then trying really different messaging points or trying really different visuals to see what’s actually going to get our audience to stop.
Because if you haven’t gotten your audience to stop, then you’ve already lost the game. That’s why we put so much emphasis on the hook for our creatives.
Yeah, I think that everybody doing ads, unless if you have a budget, say over maybe $250 a month, you should be jumping on your phone and just making selfie videos or working with influencers who are good at storytelling. But that’s such low hanging fruit and it’s much easier wins.
Yeah, exactly. Again, if you’re a founder on a budget, there’s nothing better than getting free content, which you should be making. I also think it’s just going to make you a lot better to see other types of creators that you should reach out to. And also guide people like what type of briefs you should be writing if you’ve already made that content yourself.
“The best school or training I’ve ever got for performance creative and getting content that converts is actually making creative myself.”
I think really the best school or training I’ve ever got for performance creative and getting content that converts is actually making creative myself. Because it just makes me a lot more able to communicate with other creators, with editors and making ad units that actually move the needle for brands.
Yeah, I can imagine because working with influencers, you can say, “I want you to make a video for me,” but they have no guidelines.
I imagine you’ve had experience like, “Well that’s nice seeing a final output,” but you know it’s not going to do well because the practices aren’t built in.
Yeah, exactly. And it’s better for founders to figure that out and get some learnings about what works before just letting scripts and briefs loose on UGC creators. Because you don’t want to start at the ground level with them. You could be just spinning your wheels in perpetuity.
Get some learnings, figure out some messaging networks with yourself, and then start looking out for maybe people that are a little bit more like you or are not like you. So, you could be expanding into different demographics, but you at least have a sense on how storytelling should be in your ad unit.
Cool. Everybody’s always going to say that we’re going to pivot, but I definitely think they want to pivot in what paid social is or what platforms are dominant with TikTok really taking over or becoming more and more the go-to app. How do you see that transformation? Has it changed you as a marketer over say the past six months to a year, or do you see it changing yourself again possibly in the next six months to a year?
Dara Denney: “The TikTok effect is real.”
I mean, the TikTok effect is real. I feel like a lot of the actual content that we see moving the needle, not only on TikTok ads, but also on Facebook and Instagram is content that looks and feels like TikTok’s. And I think what’s really been the bigger shift, because I’d say that we’ve known for the last 36 months, maybe even two years, that hey, creative is the most important thing.
“I recently did an analysis on some ad creatives that creators made for a specific brand, and it was interesting that the creatives that did the best for the specific brand all went into deep detail of their pain points before they found the product.”
We’re all very well aware of that now, but I think something that I’m starting to see is really just how important a lot of personal storytelling is for those ad units and how that can be a very big swing.
I recently did an analysis on some ad creatives that creators made for a specific brand, and it was interesting that the creatives that did the best for the specific brand all went into deep detail of their pain points before they found the product. So, it was very intimate stuff.
“Social media is a little less confessional and a little bit more authentic now.”
I think that people are actually more used to baring their soul now a little bit more on TikTok. If you’ve ever been on your For You page, that stuff is scarily accurate. I sort of feel like social media is a little less confessional and a little bit more authentic now, and that has also transcended through a lot of the content that actually works now in performance marketing, which is kind of interesting.
In the next six months to a year, I don’t know. I think our industry as a whole is going to take a step back on TikTok. To be candid, TikTok did not have as good of results during Black Friday, Cyber Monday and all of Q4, I think as we all anticipated. I think a lot of people were projecting a lot bigger wins from TikTok.
Overall, platform people and media buyers will deprioritize it a little bit, but I think that as far as content is concerned, TikTok made the standard for content and we’re going to have to continue learning that platform and learning that type of content.
Yeah, I think there’s a little bit too much fluff around YouTube Shorts. I hear a lot about YouTube shorts.
I don’t necessarily see it from an advertiser standpoint for at least a year plus. I think that people are just trying to ride the train before it gets here.
YouTube Shorts, it’s even hard as a user, I’d say. When I’m going around on YouTube shorts, a lot of it is just repurposed TikToks anyway. It’s the same thing for reels. I think that YouTube Shorts though, it is starting to get its own voice and its own tone and starting to differentiate itself a little bit from TikTok.
But it’s still not a place that I think people are flocking to and that people want to be. I actually did a test on my own TikTok and YouTube Shorts recently where I took a short form piece of content that I knew would crush it because I actually had made that content a year or two previously. And it was really interesting.
On TikTok, it crushed. It got 50k views within a week, but on YouTube Shorts, it only got 2,000.
So, it was really interesting to see, “Okay, I know this is a winning piece of content, but it’s not gaining traction on shorts. Why is it? Are the users different? Is the user behavior that different?”
I just think I wouldn’t even know where to begin with making performance creative for that platform yet, because I don’t even think that platform really knows what it is yet.
Yeah. I don’t think creators should log on and say, “I’m going to make it from TikTok.” They basically do what everybody else does, just copy and paste across every other platform.
Yeah. It’s so interesting. I recently went up to a meetup that Meta threw a few months ago that was four creators, and they brought a whole bunch of TikTok creators to essentially come and encourage them to start posting on reels.
There were a few creators that were like, “Yeah, I have 4 million subscribers on YouTube, but I only do shorts.” And I’m like, “What the heck?” They were like, “Yeah, we were repurposing stuff from TikTok.” And I was like, “Damn.”
So it’s kind of a secondary reel, these shorts and sometimes reels, as opposed to TikTok where people are mostly posting to that platform first. Like I said, it really does define a lot of the content that we’re seeing nowadays.
I think TikTok is very unique. Very much different than Meta. I would even say that from an advertiser standpoint too because you can get away with branded content on Meta as an advertiser. Much less so on TikTok.
Dara Denney: “TikTokers also just know how to sniff out bullshit and inauthenticity.”
Yeah. TikTokers also just know how to sniff out bullshit and inauthenticity. You can get away with mediocre creative or just not clever creative on Meta for the right budget and the right product, but that just won’t fly on TikTok. Which I think is why it’s such a big barrier to people. If you really can’t nail content, then you have no business being on TikTok.
I have two things about that. I think that’s only for a time period. The reason why TikTok is like that is because it’s in its infancy, which Instagram was, say 2015. And because people haven’t seen ads that often on TikTok, they’re going to say “It’s just going to be much easier to be able to know us.”
But because we’ve been so much more accustomed to advertising for so longer on Meta, our barriers are down. We’ll let the bullshit come in.
Dara Denney: “I think we have more marketing blindness on Meta platforms.”
Yeah. I think we have more marketing blindness on Meta platforms. We’re able to just ignore it and it doesn’t really impact us. We just scroll and the next thing comes and we get our dopamine fix.
On TikTok, that user flow is a little bit more jarring because it is video content. I think a lot of Meta content is still a little bit more, not necessarily just image based, but maybe infographics, longer text styles, but TikTok is just video.
So, I feel like if you see a video that really breaks the flow, it’s kind of jarring.
Yeah. You can get away with subpar images on Instagram and do relatively well. You can’t do that on TikTok.
Yeah. You really do just need to speak to your customers or your users directly, which is not something that everyone can do, which is why I think there’s a lot of intimidation by it, just turning on your phone and being a creator.
It feels like unnatural the first few times you do it. So I get that it’s hard, but it’s also a necessary evil if you want to crack that platform, I’d say.
Yeah. Yeah. It’s probably why I see for your content, you’re doing a lot of UGC. Media buying, I think is easy. That’s an oversimplification.
It should be. No, it should be. Yeah, at this point, media buying is easy. It’s all automated. Anyone could be a media buyer.
Yeah. Yeah. You’re probably just good at explaining kind of what’s going on in the black box. But the manual work, I wish it could be more work. I wish that I can put in an extra 20 hours to be able to get a better ROI, but that’s just no longer the case.
Yeah. And it’s kind of funny, I sometimes feel bad about my YouTube content because I feel like I say the same things over and over, but the views are still there. People still want it, but I’m like, “Yeah, this is what your account structure should look like. It’s really bare bones. This is how you optimize an account. This is how you do all this.”
“The creative strategist is the new media buyer.”
And it’s really quite simple. It’s really simple at the end of the day. You should not be spending any more than an hour in your ad account per week, even if you’re spending more than a 100k per month. You shouldn’t. There’s no reason to.
But where people get tripped up is the creative part. And that is unfortunately the most important thing.
Yeah, you can look at your hook rates, you can make iterations, but the creative strategist is the new media buyer at this point in terms of importance in an ad account. That is not something that’s as easy to become after watching a few YouTube videos and taking a single online course.
Thinking about consumer psychology and how to reach people and communicate to them in a way that they not only understand but want to buy, that’s some old school shit.
Yeah. I would say it’s actually a big reason why everybody hates Facebook reps. What their goal is is to tell you, “You should only focus on creative. 95% of your effort really should be thinking about ideating, storyboarding, production, yada, yada.”
But they don’t know how to tell you that. They don’t know how to tell you the nuances of a creative.
No. That’s also because they hire… Now, they just let off a ton of people. Even their support for agencies. It’s really gone. It’s really reduced their bandwidth to be able to help us out, which is disappointing.
But now they’re just hiring a bunch of people that really don’t understand the platform. These are marketing experts. They’ve never actually run a Facebook ad. They’ve never run a Facebook marketing campaign.
“I really empathize with newbie media buyers and first time founders that are trying to run their ad accounts.”
I really, really empathize with newbie media buyers and first time founders that are trying to run their ad accounts. Because they look at people who work for Facebook as people who should know how their platform works and should know the right roadmap to getting success in the platform. The reality is that they don’t. They’ve never ever been in that position themselves.
So, they just have this regurgitated adlib style script that they read you and that is a really big fucking disappointment and it’s a really hard place to be. That’s also why I make the content that I do because I desperately wanted to know when I was a founder, what do the inside of ad accounts look like?
What should they look like?
How do you make content that people are going to convert from?
And how do other media buyers think about this?
Should you stack interest? Shouldn’t you? I have no fucking idea. This is all new to me. And no one talks about it, which is why I just saw that there was a huge need for someone to talk about that type of content.
Yeah, yeah. You said you went to a Facebook event. I remember going down to Facebook events and being so excited. I can’t wait for the presentation and maybe I got one stat that was irrelevant to what I was doing, but that’s a cool stat.
Yeah. I’ve gone to a few of their events and their live events are always really fun. They always know how to throw a good party. I mean, Facebook honestly made my career in many ways.
“Facebook is still the best ad bang platform there is.”
So, as much as I want to criticize them and be like, “Y’all are really fucking up.” It’s like, “Actually, they’re still the best ad bang platform there is.”
There’s a lot of criticisms. I could criticize it all day, but they have the most data, they still get the best results. At the end of the day, nothing blew up over Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Q4 thus far.
I don’t really have that many complaints. I think that as someone who has built a career on the platform, I’m very intimately interwoven with many of the flaws and the frictions that it provides media buyers. So it’s just like I can vent about it a little bit.
Yeah. TikTok is doing something now with their reps that I have never seen Facebook do, or at least I talked to a TikTok rep recently that if you spend X amount on their platform, they’ll actually give you free videos from influencers.
Dara Denney: “I could not say enough good things about the way that TikTok runs their agency partners.”
Oh yeah, I’ve seen that. We’ve had a few clients do it. I mean, listen, TikTok, I could not say enough good things about the way that TikTok runs their agency partners.
My TikTok rep comes to New York. He takes me out for drinks. It’s a great time. And I talk to them weekly and they’re actual people that give me nuanced answers and empathize with me. I’m friends with my TikTok guy. It is wild. I never felt that type of comradery with people at Facebook.
I mean, maybe it’s a scale thing, who knows? But TikTok, I just see them doubling down on making agency relationships work, on making their ad buying platform work. Even though, yeah, they don’t have as much data as Facebook, the algorithm’s not quite there, we’re not quite getting the results that we need just yet.
I have a lot of faith in that platform and I have a lot of faith in the teams that they’re building, and I think they will get there. I just think it’s going to be different. It’s not going to be as plug and play as Snapchat was for a while. Oh, you see something working on Instagram stories, you put it on Snapchat. It’s like printing money. I think it’ll always be a little different.
Yeah. You said Facebook has more data, but TikTok actually shows you more data, which is, I thought-
So interesting. Yeah.
On so many different areas. Audience insights, which I think there’s an angle in too.
That’s really an influencer play. You can be able to find what your audiences care about, go after those influencers. But you can actually see, I wanted this five years ago. Frame by frame, when do people click? Never happened.
Exactly. Yeah. And it almost feels like that’s too much. I’m like, “Whoa, I don’t even know how to dissect all that information.”
That’s how I know they want it to work because they’re sharing their best secrets, but they can’t make a webinar and be like, “Do exactly this tactic.” Because NDAs.
But it’s like, yeah, if they just democratize all that information for everyone and lead us to pasture in a way, that is kind of dope.
Yeah. Actually, I heard a little rumbling. This is on a podcast, so this may not even come out, but I hate lead forms.
So do I. Yeah.
They sound great and they work great until you do down funnel performance.
I was talking to a TikTok rep about, once they fill out the lead form, send them to a landing page inside the app. Or maybe you can send them to a video or whatnot.
You can be able to better educate, “This is why you actually clicked on an ad or this is what’s going to happen.” I was asking Facebook to do that for years and they have never done any adjustments really to their lead gen form. It’s always been crap.
Yeah, yeah. I think they’re trying to essentially take the instant experience thing that Facebook did and then turn it into a better lead form, which I think is kind of dope. But yeah, I’m interested to see how that performs.
Right now for a lot of our brands, we just take our landing pages that work well with Facebook and Instagram, duplicate it for TikTok, and kind of go about our way there so that we can at least discern different conversion rates and whatnot.
Oh, you actually duplicate it. Okay. It’s cleaner.
Yeah. More cumbersome but cleaner.
Instant experience’s time I think has passed. Maybe you can tell me any secrets. Have you ever done a good instant experience from an ROI standpoint?
No. No. I can’t think of one in recent memory. No.
I thought they were so cool. I spent so much time doing a couple of them. It was so embarrassing to go back to the creative teams and basically hide from them for as long as you can and, “Sorry, guys. All that effort is getting five bucks a day.”
Dara Denney: “The instant experience stuff was never used in any way as an organic feature.”
Yeah. It’s just not how people use the platform at the end of the day. I think that if TikTok can figure out this form to make it still engaging enough that it feels like a true platform experience as opposed to an ad experience, that’s probably the key to it.
But if you think about it, the instant experience stuff was never used in any way as an organic feature.
It should have been.
Yeah, I think that could have been a really cool activation for brands organically or even influencers. I think people would’ve really liked that for their favorite influencers or their favorite celebrities. They could have done some cool activation there. But yeah, just trying to feature creep for an ad unit. Yeah, probably not.
That taught me that every tool that Facebook or any of these platforms come out with, even retargeting, you have no idea if it’s going to work. It’s just a tool and they put it out there and they hope that it will work for you. But there’s no guarantee.
Yeah, there’s no guarantee really on any of these platforms or any of these features, unfortunately. I actually do like being a part of the betas and the new stuff that they’re trying to test, just because it’s interesting for me personally and it’s often a good selling point for clients to be able to be the first to test the thing.
“Focus on the basics, get better at creative, there’s no new shiny thing that’s going to hack your way to success with it on these platforms.”
But yeah, I mean I think that especially for new brands and newbie media buyers, focus on the basics, get better at creative, there’s no new shiny thing that’s going to hack your way to success with it on these platforms.
Yeah. You probably have talked to clients before thinking that their description is “This is a silver bullet.”
Oh yeah. I get a lot of people asking me in not so many words, guarantees for performance and I’m just like, “No, we can’t work together.”
I’m very confident in what I do. I’m very confident in getting people results, but it’s actually probably going to be more of a headache if you’re the type of business or company that comes out of the gate needing a very explicit, harsh ROI.
“If you’re expecting to hire a new agency, a new media buyer, and dramatically get new results the next week, that’s not reality.”
Because a lot of times it’s out of the media buyer’s hands. It’s out of the creative person’s hands. There really is a bit of a framework to getting better results and it doesn’t happen overnight. So, if you’re expecting to hire a new agency, a new media buyer, and dramatically get new results the next week, that’s not reality. I just try to avoid that type of thinking.
You’re not going to get it on every shot, but you know if you test, let’s say, on the fourth or fifth round, it’s almost a guarantee say if you’re doing a modular video.
You’re getting those internal learnings, you’re understanding the different hooks and you’ll eventually learn what your audience cares about and get there. But if you miss one time and you have somebody breathing over your back for two ROAS, that is not a fun working environment.
Dara Denney: “I think right now people are hyper-focused on efficiency as opposed to scaling.”
Yeah, exactly. I’d say it’s kind of tough right now. Economy is not what it used to be. A lot of brands are feeling the heat. A lot of brands are doing layoffs. There’ve been a few brands that I’ve heard of in the press that have shut down.
I think right now people are hyper-focused on efficiency as opposed to scaling, which is definitely interesting looking at macro trends. But I do find that some brands right now, they’re pulling back on spend and they’re being less concerned about scale, scale, scale.
And it’s a lot more about efficiency and making smarter business decisions, which it always should have been. But we were in the heyday for a while of Facebook ads. It’s now time to come back down to something more manageable.
Yeah, yeah, I totally agree. Depending on your market, it has definitely changed over the past couple of months.
Cool. Well, Dara, thank you so much for chatting. It has definitely been fun to be able to nerd out with paid social and everything involved.
Oh, is there anything that you want to be able to throw out? If people are looking to find out more about you, where can they be able to check you out?
Yeah, just find me on my YouTube channel. It’s just my name, Dara Denney. I launch one video every single week about paid social, about ad creative. That’s where I’m the most consistent.
Cool. Awesome. Well, Dara, thank you so much and thank you for jumping on.
Awesome. Thank you so much, Gabe.
Thanks for listening to our podcast on TikTok Ads & UGC with Dara Denney!
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