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How Facebook’s automated ad freezes are costing small businesses

The word Facebook is shown oalong with the company's logo.
When businesses that use Facebook’s self-serve advertising tools get locked out of their accounts, the company can continue to charge them for campaigns they have no control over.
(Getty Images)

Small advertisers that rely on Facebook to spread marketing messages are up in arms over the social network’s automated ad systems, complaining that inflexible account blocking tools and a lack of customer assistance are hurting business.

One digital marketer, Chris Raines, was setting up an advertising campaign on Facebook last week when his account abruptly stopped working. Raines uses his account to manage ads for clients’ Facebook Pages. Without it, he couldn’t do his job.

The lockout was a nuisance, but then Raines noticed something more concerning: A $3,000-per-day ad campaign that he’d set up for a client before his account was locked continued to run even though he could no longer manage it. Raines was spending his client’s money without any way to control how.

Raines tried to confirm his identity using Facebook Inc.’s automated systems, but received an error message. Eventually, he called the advertiser and asked if it would make his wife an administrator to the company-owned Facebook Page. Using her account, he was finally able to log in and manage the Facebook ads, which includes adjusting details such as who sees the ad and how much to spend.

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“The actual injury, especially for advertisers and marketers, is immense,” said Raines, who runs a digital media company called Bullhorn Media. “Had I not had that workaround, my business would have went away.”

As he investigated solutions, Raines started hearing about other ad buyers in the same position. Harrison Kugler, an independent digital media manager in New Jersey, was similarly locked out while running ads for his client, a local comedy club. It took him 26 hours to get his account back, during which he estimates he spent $200 in Facebook ads without his usual level of oversight. In New Zealand, marketing consultant Sam Frost was frozen out of his account, and there were no other administrators linked to some of the Facebook Pages running the ads. He spent “a couple hundred dollars” before he was allowed back in.

“It’s not a king’s ransom, but it’s more the fact that to some businesses that might be a huge amount of money,” Frost said. “I don’t see any other business that would be able to get away with it.”

As Facebook has increasingly relied on automated tools to help rid its service of bad actors and inappropriate content, many rule-following users are complaining about being caught in Facebook’s net. Last month, some small business owners were shocked to find seemingly innocent holiday ads caught in Facebook filters, hurting their business during the most important time of the year. Users have created a number of Change.org petitions over the years asking Facebook for better customer service, including one started this fall that now has more than 800 signatures.

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Unlike buying a TV commercial or a billboard, Facebook ads require more hands-on attention. Many campaigns may include a number of ads with different images or language depending on who is being targeted. That specificity is the core benefit of advertising with Facebook. The company’s immense trove of user data enables advertisers to tailor messages to very specific audiences. If one ad is performing poorly, a plugged-in campaign manager might pull money from that ad and funnel it to a different one that’s getting a better response.

That’s impossible to do if you can’t access your Facebook account. “Would you be comfortable with someone having your credit card and the ability to spend on that credit card without any insight into what’s going on?” Frost asked.

Many Facebook Pages have multiple administrators, meaning if one is suspended or loses access, others could still control ad campaigns. But many businesses also pay for experts or specialists to do most of the work, meaning ads from the account are essentially unsupervised if that expert can’t log in. Facebook says ad accounts that have just one administrator are halted if that person is suspended, but in many cases, advertisers aren’t fully suspended — they’re simply flagged by Facebook’s automated systems for spam, and temporarily locked out. But if an account is locked out but not formally suspended, ads tied to that account keep running.

To get back in, users are asked to verify their identities, but Raines, Frost, and Kugler all had difficulty with Facebook’s automated systems. In multiple cases, they sent in pictures of their IDs without a response, or requested verification codes to be sent via text message, but the codes never arrived.

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“While we offer tools to help small businesses connect with potential customers and grow their business, we also have systems in place to prevent abuse and protect people from scams,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement. “Our enforcement, however, isn’t perfect. We apologize for any disruption.” Facebook says 99.9% of the spam it finds on the service is discovered using automated systems.

The incidents highlight what is becoming an increasingly troubling theme for Facebook. The social network has never been more important to small businesses, given the push toward online interactions during the pandemic. Facebook is so crucial to smaller companies’ sales that many couldn’t afford to stay away from the company’s ad products this summer during a big-brand boycott to protest its policies. Likewise, Facebook’s relationships with these advertisers is so central to its public messaging that the company took out full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers last week attacking Apple Inc.’s data-collection policies and positioning itself as a champion for small businesses’ online efforts.

But as that reliance has grown, Facebook’s struggle to support these businesses has begun to show. The company’s automated customer-service tools seem unable to support the number of businesses with issues. When Kugler first submitted his information in an effort to recover his account, including a photo of his ID, Facebook sent him an automated response that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be “unable to review your account.”

“I didn’t realize how dependent I was on Facebook’s platform,” Kugler said. “To get this sort of lack of accountability from a company that seems to empower employees and all this stuff is absolutely preposterous.”

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A big part of the issue, according to Facebook advertisers, is that the company doesn’t have a robust set of customer service systems in place for smaller advertisers. Facebook brags that it has 10 million advertisers, but the majority of them don’t have a regular human contact person within the social network to resolve issues. The company offers an automated chat feature for advertisers, but you need an active Facebook account to use it, which means its not available to users who have been accidentally locked out.

Lindsey Antonio, who manages a hotel in New Jersey, spends a very small amount on Facebook ads every month — about $30. But when her account was unexpectedly locked last week, she had no recourse to recoup it. “I don’t feel that there is an avenue, and even if there was I am not sure I would be heard because I’m such a small contributor,” she said. “In a year where my ownership group is having difficulty buying uniforms, laying off people, they’re still allowing me to advertise on Facebook and this is kind of the repayment we get.”

Raines and Frost eventually gained access to their accounts again, but don’t think the issue was fixed through Facebook’s proper channels. Instead, they were lucky enough to find a Facebook employee on LinkedIn willing to escalate their issue internally — at Facebook’s size, not a scalable solution. Even though Raines’s account was restored, he only recouped a portion of the necessary ad features he needed. He had to continue using his wife’s account to manage ads for his clients for an additional four days before he regained full access himself.

“I’m a gnat on the back of a water buffalo,” Raines joked. “It’s just sitting back and hoping and waiting and that’s a scary prospect when your livelihood revolves around it.”


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