Should Political Campaigns Use Google Ads or Facebook Ads?

This question’s come up a couple of times lately, most recently when I was meeting with a group of Maryland political candidates last week — should political campaigns focus their online advertising on Google or Facebook? The answer, of course, is yes.

But first, what’s the difference between the two? Both are pay-per-click, meaning that advertisers only shell out cash when someone actually clicks on a link in an ad, making the secondary branding benefits from having the ad sitting there on the page functionally free. Both are also targetable, allowing a campaign to try to reach particular audiences with the right messages, but there’s where the differences start to come in.

Google Ads are effectively behaviorally targeted, in that they’re served-up based on what someone’s actually doing online. For instance, Google search ads will show up on search results pages if the advertiser has bid on the particular keywords the person has entered. Likewise, Google content ads appear on websites (like tied to the actual words on the page — a page about politics, for instance, should feature political ads. So, a reader will only see ads on a given topic if they’ve chosen to read a page that’s related to that topic.

Facebook Ads, by contrast, target members of the site based on the preferences they’ve listed in their profiles, plus their overall demographics. So instead of, say, targeting people searching for “politics” or viewing a page about politics, Facebook will serve ads to people who’ve listed “politics” as an interest. The level of targeting available can get intense fast: hey, let’s target ads at women in Los Angeles between 35 and 45 who indicate that they’re fans of both punk rock and dinosaurs (perfect for an ad touting a Sex Pistols reunion tour…and I’m going to musician’s hell for that line).

Another difference? Google Ads are very easy to track, and they integrate directly with Google’s website analytics package (and can be integrated with the tracking features of many common CRM/fundraising/advocacy systems), which makes it particularly easy to calculate the Return On Investment from an ad run. Facebook’s analytics are standalone and more tied to user demographics, making it harder to calculate ROI. But this approach has other benefits, since advertisers can see clearly which messages are resonating with which demographics, in effect making the site a giant focus group (a feature with which my NMS colleague Soren Dayton has recently fallen in love.)

So back to our original question, which should a campaign concentrate on? I’d recommend both — Google Ads have a powerful ROI, something that’s been proven again and again by campaigns trying to build up a fundraising list, but ads on Facebook can really help build a visible following, letting a campaign demonstrate a volume of support in a public space (while also opening up supporters’ friends for influence). Plus, the two services generate complementary data, since Google Ads can give a campaign an idea of which messages are resonating broadly on a given topic, while Facebook can help show how the same effects are playing out in different slices of the body politic. Plus they’re both likely to be a lot cheaper, and in some ways more revealing, than polling. And finally, of course, both really do help build that donor/volunteer list…which is why politicos ultimately care about them.


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Facebook ads are also incredibly easy to track, I’ve found. Facebook for Advertisers has a little table that shows you exactly which ads were viewed, clicked and how much those views and clicks cost. And Facebook shows up clearly in Google Analytics as a driver of traffic, from which you can easily monitor visitor metrics.

  • I don’t think anyone questions that online advertising can be effective. The real question is how much you need to spend to be effective. I’ve had several conversations with knowledgeable people who repeat the same consistent theme – you don’t get much return by just dipping your toe in with a few static ads.

    We see these stories about the ROI achieved by Brown and Obama, but these campaigns had hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on multiple channels, and also had professional firms managing the tweaking and bidding of the online ad campaigns for them.

    Where does this leave the campaigns that don’t have this kind of money? I’d love to see some reports on how effective online advertising has been for small campaigns without 6 figure ad budgets, and how much they had to cannibalize their traditional media spend.