Time to stop getting smashed on Facebook

Facebook is the new battleground of the war of ideas that will decide what kind of politics will succeed into the future. And I’m not just talking electoral politics, but the kind of ideology — trickle-down — that dominates our society.

Despite the onslaught of criticism, scandals and threats of regulation, Facebook’s growth continues to grow — both in raw number of users and in revenue (up 25%) in just a year.

Several recent elections (the UK General Election in December and the Australian election in May) both saw progressive parties and campaign organisations get crushed by conservatives. A similar dynamic is playing out in the USA, and in parts of Europe.

Right-wing organisations and parties have adopted and deployed information warfare and cutting-edge corporate digital tactics, and progressive groups are still debating whether we should “play the game”.

This article is an appeal for unions in particular, but progressive organisations and parties generally, to realise that we’re losing the war… with serious consequences.

(P.S. Here’s a link to my free guide to online campaigning for unions, which includes detailed information about best-practice Facebook advertising and engagement.)

The UK Conservative Party utterly crushed progressive parties and campaigns on Facebook.

In the final few weeks of the campaign, the Conservatives spent a total of £959,329 on Facebook advertising.

This Conservative ad-spend was almost double the Labour ad spend on Facebook.

They also spent more on digital advertising overall.

The purpose of the ads were not to “persuade” swinging voters.

Instead, they concentrated their ads on attacking Corbyn and promoting the “let’s get Brexit done” message.

To be clear: this was the political equivalent of corporate brand advertising:

The Conservative party took a two-pronged approach, says Sam Jeffers of WhoTargetsMe, which analyses online ad-targeting activity. The first was to repeat a simple message to the widest possible audience. To that end the party bought two full-day “takeovers” on YouTube, which meant that anybody visiting the video site or using its app would see the Conservative message. That is the digital equivalent of broadcast advertising.

The second prong was targeted advertising, but along broad categories such as constituency, rather than narrow ones such as interest or income. Many non-Tory voters would have seen its ads.

(Read more here about why brand advertising works.)

In the UK, as in almost every country except Australia, getting out the vote by mobilising your “base” is the most effective way to win elections.

Facebook ads of the type run by the Conservative (and by the Brexit Party) aren’t intended to change minds. They’re designed to fire-up Conservative Party supporters and Brexit supporters — and get them to vote.

Meanwhile, progressive Facebook ads were mostly aimed at making persuasion appeals focused on issues, trapped in the marketing-bullshit of Cambridge Analytica micro-targeting hype.

Publicly available data from Facebook’s ad library support these conclusions. On average the Conservatives spent £13.58 for 1,000 views, a common industry measure, on Facebook and Instagram. Labour spent nearly twice as much. “There is a diminishing return because the more layers of targeting you put on the advertising, the more expensive the ad is,” says Benedict Pringle, who runs politicsadvertising.co.uk (via Economist)

The scandals impacting Facebook are having little impact on its growth. Axios reports that Facebook’s revenue has grown 25% in the past year — only a tiny fraction of that revenue is from political ads. Most of the revenue is from companies trying to sell things.

A medium-sized Facebook advertising re-targeting company (called “Shoelace”) recently released a report about the state of Facebook advertising.

They found that a $10 million ad spend results in $70 million in sales. Specifically, they found that

  • Ads with “a unique message with different ad copy, powerful creatives and unconventional CTAs (calls to action” perform better than “basic” direct-response ads.
  • Short text out performs long-text.
  • Polls outperform by a factor of 4 when it comes to engaging audiences, and help “warm up” customers to “buy”.
  • The best “campaign budget optimisation” results come from large audiences not smaller, targeted audiences.

The Guardian recently reviewed over 14,000 Facebook ads generated by the Donald Trump campaign.

What did they find?

  • The Trump campaign runs vast numbers of multivariate tested ads (mostly images & text).
  • They use polls and surveys to as lead generation (get their email address).
  • They have provocative, unconventional images and text, designed to “cut through”.
  • They advertise to large populations.
  • And they spent over $20 million in 2019 on Facebook alone.

In fact, the Trump Campaign is out-spending most of the Democratic presidential candidates combined (with the possible exception, now, of billionaire Bloomberg).

Most of the advertising is not aiming to persuade or convince swinging voters. Instead, the Trump Campaign is trying to build its already massive email list so that it can fundraise off their supporter-base.

And as we get closer to November 2020, the advertising will also focus on firing up and mobilising Trump supporters.

Meanwhile, the Democrats (and most progressive groups) are stuck in an old model of trying to use Facebook as a persuasion tool.

The result of this is that it is very likely that Trump will win.

Here’s the bottom line:

In addition to the propaganda and deceptively edited videos being pumped out by right-wing organisations and parties, aiming to create an alternative universe where there are no shared “facts” between conservative and progressive voters (a tactic adopted from totalitarian regimes), these effective right-wing political groups are running their Facebook advertising like e-commerce.

They’re using cutting edge e-commerce tactics to build their email lists, sell campaign merch, raise money, and build “customer”/voter loyalty. And they’re using Facebook like a brand – engaging, distinctive, repetitious.

Now obviously, Facebook ads alone don’t explain the rise of Trump or the victories of Morrison or Boris Johnson. Read this thought provoking article on polarisation of the electorate for more. And for unions, campaigning and organising is about much more than electoral contests.

The point I am trying to make is that unions need to more effectively use corporate tools like Facebook to win — win campaigns, win new members, win improvements for working people. We can’t ignore this thing that is simultaneously an information-weapon and the battleground.

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