In direct marketing, the ad that sets the performance baseline — the ad you’re writing against — is known as the control.  Sometimes controls get beaten and replaced very quickly, and sometimes they run for decades. And learning from successful controls is an important part of improving.

But if you’re not the advertiser, how can you tell when an ad you see is a control?  Well, it’s hard to know definitively, but any ad you see repeatedly is very likely a control. After all, in the direct response world, non-performing ads don’t get re-run, so any ad that IS re-run is most assuredly providing positive ROI, and very likely higher ROI than any alternative yet tested.

And that sort of gives the lie to the gossip that Facebook ads aren’t effective, which according to one recent study, seems to be just the opposite of the case.  Simply put, non-effective PPC ads, don’t get re-run, and any user of Facebook can tell you that not only are there plenty of ads showing up on their pages, but many of the same or similar ads from the same companies show up time and again.

Case in point, this ad from

I’ve blogged about this company’s Facebook ads previously, and it’s clear that they’ve kept the exact same format and strategy as before, just by looking at their ad from 6 months ago:

So what are the constants from one Control to another:

  1. Use of celebrity mug shots from their arrests — shots that leave them looking familiar, but not instantly placeable in the way that a typical celebrity headshot would be.
  2. Claim that arrest records are online along with a breakdown of the easy 2-step process for finding them.

And what’s changed?

  1. Well the “celebrity” in question has varied, as you might expect
  2. The headline has changed to emphasize the benefit rather than to challenge or mock-incriminate the viewer.
  3. The Call to Action has changed from emphasizing unlimited background checks to instant results.

All three changes seem smart to me, especially the last one, as the kind of person itching to background check someone is looking to check up on just one, specific person, not conduct mass-checks, so instantaneous results would trump unlimited usage as an incitement to “buy now.”

So what are some takeaways from all this that you could employ in your own advertising?

a) The photo is crucial. Use a photo that catches the eye and inspires curiosity with story appeal. Police mug shots, by their very nature, inspire curiosity and come loaded with story appeal. Add vaguely unplaced celebrity appeal into the mix and you’ve got story curiosity and story appeal gold.

b) Let the reader know, “what’ll happen next” and “what to expect.” The ads clearly spell out what you need to get the arrest records and background check on whoever you’re interested in: just their full name!  I see a lot of ads make the mistake of leaving the post-click experience unexplained and this is almost always a mistake.

c) Test different point of action assurances and CTA appeals until you find what works best.  Sometimes it’ll be the money-back guarantee.  Sometimes the free shipping.  And sometimes quality assurances trump everything else.  In the example ad, speed of results proved more important than unlimited access — something the company may not have uncovered without solid split testing of their ad copy.

d) When it comes time to refresh your ads, stick to your already-proven templates.  Just because your old ad response has dropped off doesn’t mean you have to ditch the format you’ve already proven to be effective. Or to go for a total redesign. Often times, a simple update of the image is enough.

So what Facebook Ad Controls have you spotted, and what takeaways have you learned from them?