This article discusses what, when and how to advertise on social media. Ads on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Youtube are the main focus in this article.
It is not easy to go ‘viral’ with a social media post, so there is always the option to advertise it in order to reach thousands or even millions of people. Political party expenditure on social media advertising is quickly rising. But who should you target, on what platform and how much should you spend on it? And what’s more, is it legal and ethical to do it?
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was widely praised for its use of social media and digital ads which even put ads in video games. But the Obama campaign only spent about $8 million on online ads, and less than $500,000 of that went to Facebook. Over a decade later, in 2020, an estimated $7.000.000.000 is spent on digital ads in the United States. Although the numbers are a lot smaller, Europe has also seen an enormous increase in digital ads expenditure.
The reasons are the following:
There are four types of digital advertising
In this article we will focus mostly on ‘social ads’ i.e. advertising on social media, such as Facebook, and Instagram. We also briefly discuss display ads (YouTube) and influencer ads (Instagram). At the bottom of the page there are links to information on other types of digital ads.
Digital ads can be used for the following purposes:
Many social media platforms allow for digital advertising, but that is not necessarily the case for political advertising. Twitter, TikTok and LinkedIn globally prohibit the promotion of political content. Other social media platforms have also started to introduce limitations to political ads in an effort to curb misinformation and manipulation of potential voters.
These platforms require the user to go through a verification process before allowing political ads. In such a process reliable information has to be shared to confirm the identity of the person/group behind the ads.
One of the major benefits of digital ads over traditional ads, is the availability of more detailed targeting options. These include:
Media and topic interests (who and what people like and follow; and what they talk about) are often used as a signifier for a person’s psychographic profile. If someone is interested in reading a sexist newspaper or following a famous racist, it is likely that that person has values that do not align with the anti-racist and feminist values of the Greens. Similarly, if someone follows Greta Thunberg, they are likely to be interested in the Green issues.
Behavioural targeting may offer more certainty. If a video you posted on social media went viral among people who care about climate change, it can make sense to target those who watched (or shared) the video again. People who have visited your website are very likely to have an interest in the party. Getting an insight into the behaviour of people outside the social media platform, requires additional tracking (‘Facebook Pixel’) which raises ethical concerns.
With power comes responsibility. The amount of data that is collected and can, potentially, be used to manipulate voters or create division between them, remains highly controversial. Journalists and citizens have a right to know how and who you are targeting, and it is likely that more demands for increased transparency and decreased targeting opportunities will be made in the future.
Digital advertising targeting is not rocket science but requires learning by doing. Set up the necessary infrastructure, test a few ads, look at the data and learn from it. Make sure the subsequent ad has smarter targeting than the previous one.
Social media platforms weigh the money they are getting from you for showing your ads against the cost for them of people leaving their platform because they do not like the content they see. The better your content matches with your audience, the better your ad will perform: more people will share your content, watch your video longer or click on your link more often. For less money.
Video generally works better than pictures. Pictures perform better than text. Short texts perform better than long texts. Emotional messages perform better than data and facts. And the more urgent the message feels, the higher the chance that it will grab attention. Most importantly, the closer your message is to the interests of those you are targeting, the better your message will perform.
Improving your content can have an enormous impact on the success of your digital ads.
The success of your digital ads depends on your content, your targeting and your budget. The more money you can spend, the higher the reach, engagement and/or conversion will be.
Digital ads can have a big impact on election results. Therefore it can make sense to spend a significant amount of any campaign budget on digital ads. In order to get a better grasp of what to spend and what to expect, you should look at the data: run a few ads and see what the results are. What value does that have compared to other expenditure?
A/B testing is split-testing between two different variants of a piece of content – labelled A and B. This technique allows you, the advertiser, to determine the underperforming and outperforming factors of your two separate ads. Such ‘A/B tests’ allow you to test multiple elements of your social media message at the same time; from the picture you use, to the text you write and the link that is shown.
A/B testing can be time consuming - although it is becoming easier to set up - and can have a remarkable impact on the success of your ads. Moreover, it allows you and the party to learn from the algorithm, by seeing what works and what does not work for your audience. In the end it is the audience that decides how effective your ad is, so it can be useful to listen to their feedback.
Before you consider political digital advertisements, it is important that you check the regulations in your country. In some countries there are periods where political ads are illegal and some countries limit targeting for political ads or demand increased transparency.
Influencers carry immense value because they have the trust and respect of their follower base. Increasingly, social media is becoming influencer focused; TikTok and Instagram being the main examples of this. We follow people that align with our interests and desires, our values and identities. And if they say something, we are prone to take that seriously.
In order to get influencers to share your content, you can either:
The closer an influencer is to your cause and values and the closer your relationship to them, the cheaper it becomes to advertise through them. Major influencers generally always work through marketing representatives/agencies, and ask a lot of money for access to their followers. For smaller influencers the industry is not yet that developed, which can make it cheaper and more worthwhile. If they care deeply about the Green cause, they might just do it for free. And if they know you personally, it is more likely they will.
GroenLinks (NL) managed to reach about three million voters (out of seventeen million) on a weekly basis on Facebook before their successful National elections of 2017, where they grew from 4 to 14 seats. In traditional media, these elections were sometimes referred to as ‘the social media elections.’ Their tactic was to combine high quality content (video) with activist support (apptivism) and digital advertising. Organic reach (reach without ads) went hand in hand with paid reach (reach through ads).
Two years later, Groen (BE) followed a similar strategy in their preparation for the 2019 elections (local, national and European). Just like GroenLinks two years earlier, their content (videos) were remarkable and they had spent significant money on digital advertising. However, they were less satisfied with the end results. By then, the competition for attention on Facebook had increased, and ‘going viral’ had become a lot harder to realise, even with support from digital advertising.
A lesson that Groen drew from their campaign is that it is more important to focus on what is best to advertise, rather than what can create the most organic reach. Trying to go organically with high quality (‘potentially viral’) content is a big investment and a big gamble, but advertising pays off quickly and can be measured. Therefore, try to create content that is best distributed as advertised, and include the advertiser in the production process. Always take the specific target group you want to reach as an anchor point: customise your content. Where possible: test whether the content is suitable and relevant for the target group. Good storytelling is less important than focused values but ideally you have both.
Digital advertising has become very important for political campaigns. The options for digital advertising are almost limitless in theory, but after some controversies they have become more limited in practice. For successful digital advertising it is important to invest in making the right content, testing your message and tailoring your targeting. The more budget you can spare, the better the results. Look at the data to see if it is worth it.
Last updated: June 2022