How Facebook Advertising was used to find a lost dog’s family

For some time, we had watched a surprisingly small number of nonprofits use Facebook advertising to effectively spread their message and build their community of supporters. This made us wonder what would happen if a broader community of nonprofits had access to these tools.

Thanks to support from Facebook, ActionSprout launched a campaign to give 2,000 nonprofits the resources to experiment with Facebook advertising for three months.

During the first month of the project, we saw many amazing stories, but one story really stood out and touched our hearts.

Sally Baker Williams from the Humane Society of the Ozarksreceived a call from a nearby shelter about a found lost dog.

“After receiving the call and an email with [the dog’s] photo from the nearby shelter, I searched for the dog/family in our data management software via the chip number, but was unsuccessful in locating him. The original microchip was from my organization, but it had not been registered and there were no adoption records due to some problems with record keeping a few years back. I was able to narrow down the time frame via the chip number, but still unable to locate any old records. That is when I decided to turn to social media.”

With the help of her Facebook ad credits and some funding from a local full-service sign company, Williams used her ads account to spin up a boosted post in the hopes of reaching the dog’s family.

She set up a targeted audience that ranged in age from 18‒65, with an overlapping distance radius to cover the four-county area that they served.

She set a budget of $175.00 over a seven-day span for the ad, and hit go.

“Within just a few hours, the post had reached over 5,000 people and we had located the owner! We only spent $2.81 of the budget.”

Let’s reflect on that for a moment.

Williams was able to use Facebook ads and find a lost dog’s family in just a matter of hours. For as little as $2.81, she had reached over 5,000 people and reunited a dog with his family.

Everyone involved got to go home that day with a happy ending.

What makes this even more amazing is the fact that Williams and the Humane Society of the Ozarks had very little past experience with Facebook advertising prior to this:

“We did our first trial Facebook ad in November 2014 for an event. I think it garnered some interest, but it was very much a beginner’s first effort. I [had] made a couple of attempts at running Facebook ads around four years ago, but quickly felt overwhelmed in trying to figure out how to successfully do it.”* The Facebook ad credits have given Williams and the Humane Society of the Ozarks the opportunity and resources to revisit Facebook advertising in a powerful way:

“Our experience [with the Facebook ad credits] has been overwhelmingly positive! The ad I ran for year-end giving had good responses [and] an ad for an elderly dog looking for a home was widely shared and he was adopted. Some other dogs were promoted and found homes swiftly. We also have a membership drive ad running right now that is doing excellent and we have new memberships coming in! I would like to sincerely express my gratitude for this program. I am learning with each ad I create, the ads are effective, and I am obtaining statistics I can present to my board of directors in order to adjust our budget to accommodate future ads.” Overall, ActionSprout has been humbled by the experience of this project. We’re only a month and a half into the ad credits project, and look forward to receiving more success stories like this.

Living with the 20% text rule and what you can do about it

We are all quite familiar with the 20% text rule at this point. It isn’t perfect, it’s sometimes inconsistent and it isn’t going away. So how do we live with it? What is and isn’t allowed? How do we use it to make our ad images more impactful?

We will touch on design theory a little bit here, but not too much to weigh you down. You do not need a dedicated design team or Photoshop. As we will see, the 20% text rule is a good thing. Constraints, oddly enough, will make your ad more powerful because you are forced to get to the most refined version of your ideas.

Why is it Inconsistent?

Facebook assesses images using a combination of algorithm and manpower. The algorithm assesses the image using a grid system, and a few images that confuse the system for one reason or another get assessed by an actual person. Thus the inconsistency.

The Rules

  1. The 20% text rule applies to everything that is included in the ad. It applies regardless of whether it’s a plain ad, boosted post or cover image.

  2. Your text will be assessed to ensure that there is no offensive or debasing language. Keep it honest and respectful, and you’ll do just fine.

  3. If the actual product in a photograph has text on it, then that text is allowed because it is not a part of the ad but rather a part of the image. However, the system sometimes doesn’t recognize it as separate from other text.

  4. Text in logos counts as text. For nonprofits, including a logo sometimes reduces the engagement with the ad because it feels “produced” or “commercial.”

  5. Keep your text simple and short… very short. Or, even better, just don’t use text at all. Your image is probably going to be seen on a small device by someone who doesn’t have all the time in the world. So if your text is small and/or long, it will get scrolled over as if it never existed.

Text vs. Image

The image is by far the most important part of the ad itself. It is the hook and it needs to be sharp. The text just reinforces the message conveyed by the image. This implies three things:

  1. The image needs to be of high quality, relevant and impactful.
  2. The text must bolster the image.
  3. You need to have your message worked out ahead of time. Your message defines the copy and the image.

This means that the image must convey your message, so you need to have that worked out first. Because of the way that the News Feed is designed, the image is much bigger and more prominent than the text. The fact that more than 90% of content is viewed on mobile devices further bolsters the prominence of images.

The 20% text rule emphasizes the importance of imagery and forces nonprofits to be better storytellers, which is a good thing—and the subject of a future post.

What is this Grid Thing?

The grid is the easiest way for a computer/human team to review the thousands upon thousands of ad images submitted on a daily basis. It is actually quite simple: if your text or part of your text falls into a box of the grid, then that box counts toward that 20% limit. (5 boxes containing text = 20% text.)

Let’s illustrate this with an ad for a fictional nonprofit: Zer0-G. We encourage inner city youth to explore space and astro science. For this example, I will use Photoshop (but, again, you do not have to use Photoshop). Facebook offers a great grid tool that anyone can use here.

Message: You can achieve amazing things with hard work and wise decision-making. Even if you come from an impoverished neighborhood.

Copy: YES YOU CAN (Note that the copy is very short, embodies the idea of our message and mission, and has no punctuation because no punctuation feels more sincere.)


Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 9.42.35 AM

Put the grid on it.

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 9.42.43 AM

Remember: only five boxes or less (in any direction or combination) may contain text. We also don’t want to obscure our spaceman (or woman).

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 9.44.00 AM

Let’s lay out our text in a clear and impactful format.


  1. The word “YOU” is in color to make it stand out among all the others.
  2. All the text is in uppercase so that it is easier to line up in blocks and so that the lower part of a lowercase “y” will not hang below a line (which would count as another box).
  3. There’s a stark contrast in color.
  4. The text looks “left-heavy.” Having a balanced image would be great, but in this case it is deliberately jarring.


Final image sans the grid:


Also note that I have not discussed the ad copy itself. The character constraints in the ad also force the same refinement of ideas and force you, the creator of the ad, to get to the point and make your point sharp. This makes your ad stronger, hooks more users, and the user has a better experience.

Constraints can be good!

To get you started here are some helpful tutorial videos on using Canva and photoshop. These are both powerful image tools that can make a big difference in your content.



Key takeaways:

  1. The Facebook 20% text rule is here to stay because it makes the user experience better.
  2. Too much text is hard to read and distracting from your awesome image, especially on mobile—where it is most likely to be seen anyway.
  3. Not every image needs text.
  4. If you do decide to include text, keep it short, keep it simple and make it pair well with the message and image.
  5. All your images must conform to the rule.
  6. Use the Facebook grid tool to verify that your image makes the cut.
  7. And, once again, remember that constraints can be good.
Facebook ads for Nonprofits

How to Run Facebook ads for Nonprofits

Like it or not (pun intended!), thanks to Facebook ads we’re entering a new and somewhat intimidating era of online advertising. Facebook only released mobile ads and social graph in 2012, but boy has the world of digital ads changed!

Sure, you may be an expert at driving content and engagement for your nonprofit, but truly leveraging ads is a completely different animal. The vast majority of nonprofits in your position are just beginning to take advantage of the true power of ads.

More recently, Facebook has performed some serious tech-magic in the advertising department, including:

  • Integration of the Lookalike Audience features.
  • Advanced targeting and retargeting methods.
  • Ability to create unpublished or dark posts that appear selectively…

That said, let’s begin this guide with a few steps that’ll ensure your nonprofit gets the best return on your investment; then we’ll get into audiences, website retargeting, targeting options and ad imagery.

Understand Your Investment

As of right now, there are three ways for you to invest time and/or money in Facebook ads:

  1. CPC/PPC: This method is the easiest to control. It’s exactly like the Pay-Per-Click advertising that’s been around a long time via Google. If someone clicks on your ad, then boom—you’re going to pay the price you bid. Getting people to click is the difficult part.
  2. CPM/PPM: Instead of clicks, you pay a certain amount for 1,000 impressions or views. Do keep in mind that CPM ads never sleep and can run around the clock, so your costs could get out of control if you’re not careful. Be sure to hit the pause button…
  3. CPA: This is where you pay for specific actions: Page likes, app installs, clicking links, etc.

CPC is typically used to generate donations while CPM is more about getting your nonprofit brand out there. Think of CPM as paying for digital billboard space along the Facebook superhighway. Don’t expect as many clicks with CPM, but your visibility will rise with the more views you purchase.

So, for example, if you’re selling a product or service to generate funds for your cause, then CPC is a better option. If you’re simply trying to bring direct awareness of something to certain targeted people, then paying $1.32 per 1,000 views isn’t such a bad idea.


The Budgeting & Bidding War

This is the tricky part with CPC and in all honesty, takes time and experience to get the hang of.

It’s a double-edged knife. You want to set a small budget and bid low to save money, but Facebook encourages you to bid higher in order to win the ad auctions and see greater results.

In the end, you’ll need to find a balance. Bid a bit higher and try to stay close to Facebook’s suggested bid range, but don’t break the bank or spend more than you’re comfortable with. It will take time to find the right balance for you.

One thing to make sure you’re doing immediately is manually controlling bidding. To do so, click on Advanced Options under Budget. This will help you better control costs.


Remember, the cost is based on demand. So the more advertisers there are trying to reach the same people as you, the higher the costs. These will change over time, so you can’t just set a budget and max bid, then forget about it.

The Two Best Options for Your Ads

We’re going to make this really simple so that your ads stay focused. While there are other options and plenty more that are likely to come about over the next year, stick with these at first to get the best results for your nonprofit:

  1. Boost your posts
  2. Send people to your website


What we just covered doesn’t come close to all there is to learn about bidding. This is a great place to start though. Once you’re ready to take the next step, you’ll want to dive into the following guides. Keep them bookmarked for now:

  1. Budgeting
  2. Bidding
  3. CPA

Tackling Your Audience

If you don’t want to throw away money or ad reach, then you’ve got to get really good at targeting the right people. Facebook allows you to create three types of audiences and you need to experiment!

  1. Custom Audience: This allows you to create ads that focus on your supporter base by integrating with your current CRM. Simply import any existing contact and target them!
  2. Lookalike Audience: This lets you ask Facebook to create an audience that’s similar to any custom audience that you’ve set up. You choose either a 1% (very close to your supporter base) or 5% specificity (gives higher reach with less specific targeting).
  3. Website Custom Audience: This is a really new addition and available to any nonprofit with between 100 and 10,000 fans. To learn more, check out the website custom audience FAQs page and prepare to be dazzled. You can use your nonprofit website or any landing page. Do you see how powerful custom audiences are? These are existing supporters that are already in your funnel and connected to your Facebook presence.

So if you’re setting up either CPC or CPM, you can really cut down on showing your ads to people who aren’t interested or relevant.

From there, you expand out and create lookalike audiences of people with similar jobs, similar Facebook behavior, geographic location, etc. Once you dig in and see how many different targeting options you have at your disposal, you can begin creating other customer / lookalike audiences based on the insights you gain.

Website Retargeting

If you have a website outside Facebook, then you’re really going to love this part…

Facebook allows you to target people that visit it after you install a pixel every page (which means that if all you have is a landing page, it’s very quick). If you don’t yet have any CRM set up, then this is a great way to gain insight on who your ideal custom audience is.

  • You can choose to target people that have visited certain pages on your website.
  • Folks who have made purchases on your site or web store.
  • Supporters who’ve converted in some other way.
  • You can also use keywords to make things even more refined.

After your audience builds up to hundreds of people, you’re ready to begin serious testing. Learn more about custom website audiences and all the many different things you can do to get more traction with your supporters and those who are interested in your cause.

Properly Layering Your Targeting Options

Tons of people get overwhelmed when it comes to super-fine targeting. It’s normal to be confused but targeting is more than worth figuring out.

An extreme example of the power of targeting is the story that went semi-viral about a guy that used Facebook ads to target his roommate! Here’s an interesting quote from the AdWeek article that shines a light on how he pulled it off:

“On Facebook, he uses Custom Audiences, the program for marketers to upload their contacts and find them on the social network. When Swichkow started his one-to-one marketing campaigns, he was allowed to just input one target. But Facebook has since made it so that you need at least 20 people on your marketing list. Still, he’s found loopholes, like if you’re targeting a man, include 19 women in your list and then set the campaign to reach only males.”

Pretty cool, right? The point here is that Facebook is allowing people to target with their ads in ways no one has ever dreamed of before… to the point where a guy scared his roommate to death, who began believing that Big Brother really had come too close. (Which may be he did…)

As you get more and more focused, and as your custom audiences grow and evolve, you’ll be able to produce better ads at cheaper rates that get seen by more quality supporters who are ready (and look to) take action.

Notes on Ad Imagery

You should understand that we’re moving into a visually dominated era in online media, and ads are NO different. Before you get hung up on the words and text, realize that the image you use in an ad is far more important… that’s no joke.

The image is the first impression and no, you do not know what images will produce the best click-through rates. Only experimentation can tell you this…

Just because an image performs well as a status update, cover photo or in a blog post, doesn’t mean it’ll draw attention or get clicks in the context of a Facebook ad, whether it appears in the timeline or sidebar.

Ad = context. That’s different from information, entertainment or sharing.

  • Split-Test Images: Collect 10–20 images with a good track record in terms of generating likes, comments and shares, and then test them out!
  • Limit Ad Length: Don’t let ads run any longer than they should, which is determined ultimately through performance.
  • Experimentation: The image might be great, but you’re targeting the wrong people. Or perhaps the image is a great one; it just needs to be tweaked?

Don’t Forget the 20% Text Rule!

Facebook’s got a tool you can use to streamline how much tweaking you have to do to make sure your images have the right amount of text. And you should know that it works for cover images and sponsored story images as well.


That was a lot of information to throw at you all at once. Let’s recap the most important parts:

  • Be sure to control your bidding with manual bidding.
  • Use “Boost your posts”; “Send people to your website”; and “Raise attendance at your event” ads for the best results.
  • Spend time on targeting. This will save you money and get you better results.
  • Test images and text. Learn what works best.
  • Skip the drama. Make sure your ads meet the 20% rule.
Facebook ad imagery

6 principals of effective Facebook Ad Imagery

Facebook released an ad image cheat sheet that seemed to list general advice on images. This caused more than a few folks to be disappointed, as they were expecting to see technical advice and image specs. What we should keep in mind though is this: Facebook ads have their own algorithm that can either work for you or against you. Similar to the News Feed algorithm that can hurt our organic reach, ads can become more expensive to run when running counter to what the algorithm wants.

This cheat sheet from Facebook is a look inside what they, and their ad algorithms are looking for from your ads. If your ad images follow these guidelines, you should expect to run less expensive ads that engage and reach more of your intended audience. With this in mind, here’s what Facebook has to say on ad images:

Facebook’s Ad Images Cheat Sheet

  1. Show the interesting part of your business. Grab people’s attention with images of your people, products and environment.

  2. Avoid distracting image elements, like bad lighting. You want people to pay attention to your image, not your image quality.

  3. Match your image to your message. Your image and words should individually convey your message but also complement each other.

  4. Use images that incite emotion. Emotion is a powerful tool for connecting with your audience.

  5. Use images that reflect your brand. Include your brand’s color or products in your images.

  6. Stay consistent. Ad images should look and feel the same across channels so that customers recognize your messages.

Refresh your images. Ad campaigns fatigue over time, so review performance and update your images when you see ad performance dip.

What about Nonprofits?

I know the language from Facebook focuses heavily on brands and for profit organizations, but these guidelines can totally be applied to nonprofits and causes as well. Let’s go through the points in more detail and look at how nonprofits can succeed.

  1. Show the interesting part of your nonprofit or cause. Grab people’s attention with images of your team, supporters and work. People support your organization because they are interested in you and your cause. Feed their interest with images of your team hard at work in the field! This will engage them further and feed their curiosity.

  2. Avoid distracting image elements, like bad lighting. You want people to pay attention to your image, not your image quality.This one is true for anyone. The problem is you can’t always help the lighting! Never fear here are some guides that will show you how even in low light it’s possible to shoot good photos.

  3. Match your image to your message. Your image should strengthen your message, not confuse it.

  4. Use images that incite emotion. Emotion is a powerful tool for connecting with your audience. There is a fine line between enough emotion to move someone to action and too much where they begin to shut down. Therefore it’s important to always use one emotion, one call to action and one target focus.Emotions should be positive and optimistic on Facebook. Even if the cause looks bleak, inspire hope that your supports can make a difference if they act now.

  5. Use images that reflect your nonprofit’s brand. Include your brand’s color(s) or logo in your images. Yes, even your nonprofit has a brand. It may not be the typical corporate brand we usually think of but it’s a brand no less. Anything that gives your nonprofit its sense of unity or personality is your brand. These are things like logos, colors, style and tone, image subjects and more.Chances are your nonprofit already has a brand, you just haven’t thought of it that way. Here’s a good example of five nonprofits who maintain a consistent brand to give you a better idea.

  6. Stay consistent. Ad images should look and feel the same across channels so that supporters recognize you and your cause.This is true for anything you do, not just ads. Similar to branding, this is important to build and maintain so that supporters can recognize you and your cause across different platforms. This is becoming increasing important as we use more and more platforms for interaction and out reach.


  1. Images + text are a winning duo. Similar to memes, these have the power to engage and reach tons of people you normally may not have. Put a little ad money behind it and they are even more powerful. Just keep in mind that Facebook ad images can only contain 20% text so don’t get carried away. Facebook supplies a great tool that you can use to make sure your images meet the mark.

  2. Actions make for great ad content. If you have an action that is doing particularly well it may be worth putting some ad money behind and giving it an extra boost. You can do so by choosing to “Promote a Post” inside the ad manager then picking your Action post.


You can download or bookmark Facebook’s full pdf here.

While choosing images for your ad is both an art and science, these general best practices are definitely worth following. Have fun, experiment and listen to your audience. They will lead you in the right direction.