The following is an excerpt from “How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014: A Comprehensive Guide to Online Politics for Campaigns & Advocates”, available for download on Amazon.com and here on Epolitics.com.
For background on Facebook outreach for politics and advocacy, see this previous ebook excerpt, “Facebook Content Strategy for Politics & Advocacy”.
Please note that this excerpt discusses the mechanics of Facebook advertising; the strategies behind why and when to use Facebook ads to achieve particular political and advocacy goals are discussed elsewhere in the book.
From the “Online Advertising” Chapter
Facebook ads have become an essential tool for political campaigns and activists: the audience is large and diverse, and ads on the social network can be targeted easily at people based on their location, past behavior, interests, demographic characteristics and more (“men aged 25-34 in Hawaii who like football” would be an targetable group, for instance).
As of April, 2014, Facebook offers two basic flavors of online ads:
- Sidebar ads, i.e., “classic” Facebook ads
- Timeline ads, aka “boosted” or “promoted” posts
Let’s look at them in turn.
Facebook Sidebar Ads
Facebook’s sidebar ads have been around for years (as far back as 2009 Epolitics.com covered their use in a local DC race, and they’re still handy for recruiting and messaging. Sidebar ads consist of a small image, a headline and some text, and page administrators (including political campaigns) typically buy sidebar ads to build promote their page and build its following. You CAN point them at an outside web page, such as your email signup page on your website, but ads that direct people outside of Facebook usually have a much lower response rate than those that point to a page or an action within Facebook.
Note that while you typically pay for clicks/interactions when you’re buying sidebar ads, a reader can still see your ad even if he or she doesn’t click on it. Since a few dollars can sometimes buy tens or hundreds of thousands of ad views, sidebar ads can convey at least some amount of your messaging. One important factor, though: sidebar ads do NOT display on mobile devices, only on desktop and laptop computers.
Optimizing Your Ad Buys
Up to this point at least, Facebook sidebar ads have been relatively cost-effective, with the price-per-click sometimes as low as a few tens of cents. The cost is highly variable, and at least for now, Facebook’s price structure rewards success: the higher the rate at which a particular ad run is clicked, the lower the cost becomes over time. As a result, Facebook effectively rewards experimentation, and as with Google ads, Facebook advertisers frequently test many different combinations of images, text and targeting to find the final versions on which to concentrate resources. (For inspiration, see this excellent case study of how Facebook Ads helped defeat a Florida ballot initiative in 2011.) You can also use this approach to test campaign messaging, as we’ll discuss later.
The ability to pay to “promote” or “boost” a post in Facebook is a newer option than sidebar ads. A key fact about boosted posts: they appear in users’ timelines, meaning that they’re integrated with organic content from friends. And, since they’re the same size as normal posts, they tend to reward the heavy use of imagery. Most promoted/boosted posts are actually images with some text or a link attached, though beware the dreaded “20% rule”: if you’re promoting an image, no more than 20% of the area of that image can be text. You have been warned!
Also key: promoted posts show up on users’ mobile devices as a matter of course, though you can choose to turn off mobile display when you buy them. For many campaigns, boosting posts is a fast route to a mobile advertising strategy.
One common use for promoted posts? To make sure that your followers actually see your content: as we mentioned in the chapter on Social Media, your content will only show up in the newsfeeds of a fraction of your fans by default. Boosting a post may only cost a few dollars, but it can expose a good story to a larger percentage of your followers. And as THEY interact with it, Facebook notes their interest and will tend to show them more of your stuff in the future. Plus, their friends can see their Likes, Shares and Comments and your content along with them, making any boosted post a potential recruiting piece.
Some campaigns will emphasize supporter engagement enough to pay to promote EVERY post, but others will reserve that privilege for higher-priority (or very timely) content. One approach: try promoting a few posts and see how it goes. Do they get significantly more exposure? Do they seem to bring in new page followers? If they do, promoting more posts in the future may be a cost-effective way to grow your page and keep your followers engaged.
You don’t HAVE to aim your promoted posts at your existing audience, BTW; you can also use them for outreach, persuasion and recruiting via the targeting options described below. As always, your ultimate success will depend on the quality of your content: the effectiveness of the text and imagery you’re promoting.
Buying and Targeting Facebook Ads
How do you promote a post? The easiest way is to publish your content (usually an image with some accompanying text and a link), then click the “boost” button. If you’re just targeting your own followers for engagement purposes, the options should be obvious. Note that local campaigns should be sure to look at geotargeting, though if your following is local, your boosted engagement posts will automatically be local as well.
For outreach beyond your existing list, use the “advanced” options to target users by criteria like location, interests, demographics or the pages they follow. Then, set your boost duration and budget and track the results. Trying to reach different audience segments? Use the advertising interface to create more than one post, with individual variants targeting the different groups.
For sidebar ads, go through the “advertise” option in your Facebook account. Agencies and others bulk buyers can also use a downloadable “power editor” tool as well as an API interface.
Facebook Custom Audiences
Right before the 2012 elections, Facebook unveiled a new feature called “custom audiences” that has real promise as a political tool. A custom audience is basically a list of email addresses or Facebook IDs, which you upload to Facebook via the power editor and use to refine your targeting (Facebook doesn’t charge extra money for the privilege, btw). A few political uses:
- Upload a list of your existing supporters (or a subset of that list) to target them with GOTV or fundraising ads within Facebook.
- Use that same list to EXCLUDE your supporters from an ad buy, for instance to save your recruiting dollars or their patience.
- Upload a list of journalists’ emails and then target the reporters with persuasion ads. A subtle (and cheap) way to influence their perceptions of the race!
Of course, custom audiences aren’t perfect, since they’ll only work if the people in question used the same email address in Facebook that you’re using in your custom audience list. Typical match rates are in the 50-75% range, though, and many political advertisers are using custom audiences to good effect already.
Facebook Lookalike Targeting
A final advanced feature often used with Custom Audiences: “lookalike” targeting. A good example? You might upload your supporter list and choose lookalike targeting to reach out to people whom Facebook deems “similar” to them based on their social profiles (which in turn involve hundreds of data points). Many political organizations have used this feature to turn a small list into a much bigger one in a short period of time.
Or, you might upload a list of political donors and use lookalike targeting to try to expand your fundraising base, under the assumption people who “look like” donors are likely to BE donors. I’ve heard from several colleagues, including ones working overseas, that custom audiences + lookalike targeting have become their key combo for list growth. I suspect we’ll see these two tools working together more and more in the months ahead.