How Facebook Dominated the 2016 Campaign

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Posted on November 28, 2016

November 8 was unforgettable for all the reasons we’ve all been talking about since. But it was also history in the making for reasons beyond the obvious. For the first time ever, political ad spending on Facebook surpassed spending on Google’s search and display network. We’re talking to the tune of $1 billion. That’s up three-fold from 2012.

For a guy who has spent his entire professional career in digital advocacy and political campaigns, this shift is a watershed moment. In previous campaigns, I would agonize with the bright minds on my team about all the search terms for which we wanted our issue-based ads to appear, and for which we felt we had the best chance of converting searchers into donors or volunteers. In many ways, search ads were—and still are—the perfect vehicle for this kind of targeting. You will likely convert someone who is searching terms related to a compelling policy you’re selling if your ad has the right message, if you’re landing page makes a compelling case, and if you perfectly seize the ‘now’ moment of search. So long as search traffic accounts for two-thirds of Internet traffic, any good digital advocacy campaign will make use of this amazing platform.

However, we should pause just to consider how much of Facebook’s ad platform has advanced in recent years. Just as important, we should consider what it means to run a proper, well-executed, and strategic advocacy campaign in this era. Consider this: despite claiming that data is an’overrated‘ tool, Trump’s campaign ran ads on Facebook that drove users to no less than 100,000 unique landing pages in August. Each landing page was micro-targeted for a different voter segment.

Think about this.

*One-hundred thousand unique landing pages.*

The next time your ad agency comes to you with a plan to build 10 landing pages, using a set-and-forget placement strategy, give them this number and ask for a better plan. This is what it takes to cut it on digital. This is what it takes to run effective advocacy campaigns online. The people we need to reach live their lives glued to their devices, looking for—and hoping to be served—content that is hyper-relevant to them, at that very moment.

To turbocharge your strategy, you need data. You need good data. And this is where America has always been great (if you’re a data-science nerd). Trump’s data provider reportedly supplied the President-elect with 220 million records, each with no less than 4,000 data points. Yes. Four. Thousand. We’re talking voter registration records, shopping patterns, ethnographic details, household composition, etc.

Now, imagine you’re armed with all that information. It won’t do you much good if you can’t reach these people with a message that will resonate with them. That, of course, is where Facebook comes in. In Canada, you can hit no less than 22 million monthly active users. In the US, you can hit three out of four Americans. All from one platform. And guess what? You can segment each of your ads to serve creative and copy that speaks to those individual interests, knowing you’re hitting it out of the park with your accuracy rate. With access to this kind of reach and data, it’s like having the ability to poll every single voter. Facebook is making every data nerd’s dreams come true (and making a killing at it). In the process, it’s helping campaigns realize efficiencies in other verticals. You can test and optimize a message online, see what works, and apply those changes to your call scripts and door-knocking scripts. The same applies in a private-sector context. You can use what is practically the world’s largest focus group to assess, in real-time, which message works for which demographic target.

It boggles my mind that in this kind of era some folks balk at the idea of shifting their ad spend so that digital accounts for the largest share of the ad buy. The $1 billion figure I talked about at the top? Impressive, right? Yes. But it only accounts for 10% of all political advertising. Ten percent? Think about your daily habits. Would you say you only spend 10 percent of your time with digital devices? I’m going to wager not. In a world where most of us are glued to our devices all day long, how is it that digital only accounts for a fragment of all ad spending?

The power of digital advertising lies in its unprecedented efficiency. You can reach more people for a fraction of the cost of traditional advertising. You can reach the right people, with the right message, at the right time. And you can measure those results with pinpoint accuracy (mostly). In a political campaign, the savings can make a huge difference in freeing up resources to focus on swing states or to pull votes. In Canadian campaigns, with our ridiculously low spending limits, the difference is a game-changer. In fact, I think we’re probably two cycles away from seeing the first digital-only political campaign, at least from an ad-spend perspective.

Of course, at the end of the day, the best targeting in the world simply can’t replace a good message. And it certainly can’t replace the power of word-of-mouth advocacy — which is why even the most perfect digital strategy can’t save a hapless, tone-deaf message. However, serving as a listening post, it can certainly help you avoid a tone-deaf message. In fact, a good digital campaign will give you early warning signs if you’re on the wrong path. So, don’t shy away from shifting more resources to digital. You may realize efficiencies while finding the message that compels action amongst your target audiences.

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