Just how big a deal is Facebook advertising?

Are you on Facebook? If you are, you’re one of 15 million Facebook users in Australia out of approx. 25 million. Do you log in at least once a day? Around 50% of Australians do. Are you over 45? You’re one of 6.9 million Australian Facebook users.

While most political scientists pooh-pooh the idea of Facebook being relevant to persuasion or changing votes, this kind of analysis fundamentally misunderstands how and why political campaigns (in the US at least) use social media.

It also shows there’s a big opportunity for unions, for both political campaigning and, importantly, recruitment.

In this post, I want to make the case to you that unions should consider dramatically restructuring communication budgets to prioritise Facebook (over all other networks) and also prioritise digital advertising over traditional media (TV, radio, and the like).

The Trump campaign is spending on Facebook at an unprecedented level, and in fact is spending more than most of the Democratic candidates combined.

Trump Facebook ad expenditure compared to Democratic primary candidates 2019.

Why would Trump be doing this? It’s certainly not to persuade people. Vox explains:

Access to digital ads has become a convenient way for campaigns to collect contact information of potential voters for email listservs and solicit small-dollar donations. And the cheap prices help candidates test out different ad formats at relatively low stakes, in comparison to TV ads.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump dominated Facebook. Not to share “fake news”, but because it was the source of his campaign’s massive $250 million small-donor online fundraising machine.

“Facebook ads are a really valuable source for building your email list, and the more emails you have on your list, the more money you’re going to raise online,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist. “There’s a direct through line to resources for the campaign.” (NYT)

A month before the election in 2016, the Trump campaign was spending more money on producing Trump hats than it was on polling. Compared to the Clinton campaign, whose Facebook ads were about mobilising voter turnout, Trump was spending massively on fundraising pitches and merch.

Trump was running a campaign aimed at getting people to do things on Facebook, and they were successful. Clinton was trying to convince voters and get them to vote. (Wapo)

Here in Australia, what did that look like? There wasn’t much reporting during the 2019 election on the intricacies of digital campaigning, and the main article I’ve found (from the Guardian) should be read with all the usual disclaimers about re-writing history, etc. However, it is worth a read.

Liberal party also beat Labor on Facebook in 2019 Australian federal election | The Guardian

Liberal videos on Facebook watched three times as much as Labor’s

The article’s lede is the key point, and there’s no further analysis of how or why the campaigns used social media. But if I were to guess, Labor was trying to use Facebook to persuade voters, and the Liberals were using it as a marketing/branding exercise — i.e. a form of content marketing to build brand awareness & trust.

Now of course, a few Facebook videos is not the reason that the Liberals won or Labor lost. But as an indicator, it tells us that one side was (possibly) far more effective at using social media than the other (not withstanding the truism that “views” are a vanity metric).

Morrison was derisively named an “ad man” by Labor, but advertising companies use Facebook (and social media advertising generally, but mainly Facebook) to build brand loyalty. This is especially the case for big brands.

There’s more and more research that shows that Facebook helps build brand loyalty. The more a person becomes voluntarily involved with a brand, through whatever channel (website, face-to-face, newsletter or journal, social media, etc), the more they will be interested in recommending and revisiting the brand. This behaviour becomes self-reinforcing and leads to attitude change, and ultimately “purchase intent”.

So here we have two different tactical uses for Facebook advertising:

  1. The Trump tactic: buying vast numbers of donors
  2. The Morrison tactic: brand advertising and building “loyalty”/affinity.

Both of these tactics should be added to the campaign toolkit for unions. And they can both be used together.

Firstly, unions should use Facebook to acquire new members. Back in 2014 on my blog I asked: does your union know what it costs to sign up a new member? Even today, when I ask, most union leaders can’t give me a hard figure (“a few hundred dollars”, “I’m not sure”, etc). But online, you can calculate the cost of a signing up a new member down to the cent. And with members having a life-time value of around $3000 or more, would you sign up a new member if it cost you $100 or $300 in online advertising?

Now, this kind of membership recruitment is easier said than done. It means having a proper digital suite of tools, and staff who can use and understand them. It means having a digital membership form that can track UTM codes (what are UTM codes?). It means having a CRM or membership system that allows you to track potential members or prospects, as well as store the volumes of digital data that is the lifeblood of online advertising. It means having an outbound call-centre. It means having structures and policies in place to handle pre-existing issues. It means ensuring that your structures and organising plans can adapt to both digital and face-to-face or other other cold recruitment your union does, by providing relevant digital leads (potential members) to your organisers to contact.

Secondly, your union can build and maintain loyalty with existing members. The result: better retention.

Big companies care about brand loyalty because it means they don’t continually have to spend to acquire the same customer, and because it makes other sales marketing more efficient. Brand advertising (as opposed to advertising a specific product or promotion to drive sales) is intended to build loyalty and trust for the brand overall, so that when faced with competing brands, a customer buys the brand they’re most loyal to.

Few unions would have a budget for the kind of large-scale mass-media brand advertising that ASX500 companies engage in. Furthermore, union membership is more or less a “niche” service — relevant to workers only in specific industries, workplaces or geographies.

Facebook (and digital advertising, e.g. via Google Ads) is therefore both affordable and scalable.

Should your union run ads promoting the benefits of membership to its existing members?

I think the answer is “yes”. There’s lots of research that shows that the more interactions a person has with a company or service, the more likely they are to continue the service. This is especially the case for membership or subscription services, like gyms, magazine subscriptions and the like.

The same is true for unions.

Back in 2008 or 2009, when I worked at the NTEU, we observed that new members who spoke to an organiser or a local elected rank-and-file official, or attended a union event, within a month of joining were far more likely to remain members after 12 months. Those who had no interaction with the union were significantly more likely to resign after 12 months.

Engaging with members via Facebook ads is a very “light touch” version of this. Effectively, you’re reminding members of the value of union membership.

Unions therefore need to post unique content, reflect their members’ profile, be active and open in discussions, and helpful with practical matters in order to promote interaction. Unions should also promote not only “values” messaging, but the tangible benefits of membership too (yes, even the dreaded Union Shopper).

Read my blog post here about how unions can build their brand.

Takeaway. While traditional media ads has a stronger impact on brand awareness, social media communication strongly influences brand image, and the reality is that most unions will be able to afford Facebook advertising and see a real return, compared to spending on newspaper or TV ads.

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