Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Facebook and Political Advertising

Heather Oard

As the 2016 presidential election campaigns ramp up, there's a steady stream of declarations about the winners and losers of debates, polls, and fundraising. The path to the presidency will run through new territory, your Facebook news feed. As the race begins, the world’s largest social network is emerging as the single most important tool of the digital campaign, with contenders as different and disparate as Hillary Clinton and Ben Carson, Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, all investing in the platform already.

Republican Presidential Candidates Donald Trump and Jeb Bush at the first Republican debate, co-sponsored by Facebook.

Thanks to powerful new features unveiled since the 2012 campaign, Facebook now offers a far more customized and sophisticated splicing of the American electorate. And, for the first time in presidential politics, it can serve up video to those thinly targeted sets of people.

That unprecedented combination is inching campaigns closer to the Holy Grail of political advertising: the emotional impact of television delivered at an almost atomized, individual level.
“I can literally bring my voter file into Facebook and start to buy advertising off of that,” says Zac Moffatt, who was Mitt Romney’s digital director and whose firm now works for Rick Perry’s campaign and Scott Walker’s super PAC.

“We use Facebook more than any single tool,” says Wesley Donehue, a top digital strategist for Marco Rubio, speaking about both his political and corporate clients. “The level of targeting has gotten so sophisticated, allowing us to drive different messages to different audiences. I mean, the amount of content we’re pumping out on Facebook right now is just unbelievable.”

With 190 million American users, Facebook’s wealth of information about its members is unmatched: identity, age, gender, location, passions much of which is coughed up voluntarily. But it doesn’t end there. Facebook has a far more complete picture of its members than even what they’ve typed in themselves. 

Through partnerships with big data firms, like Acxiom, the site layers of behavioral information, such as shopping habits. What that means is that Facebook, with its reach across a huge swath of the U.S. electorate, can pinpoint individual voters at the most granular of levels. And that’s why campaigns are buying their way in, reshaping not only campaign budgets but how the political battle itself is fought and won.

Facebook won’t be the only digital behemoth that gets a revenue boost from political spending in 2015 and 2016. Google, one of Facebook’s chief rivals for campaign dollars, is expected to garner big sums, especially with its preroll ads on YouTube, inventory for which is already running low in Iowa and New Hampshire. 

A rising tide, after all, lifts all boats, and Forrester Research projects that total spending on digital ads—for all American advertisers, not necessarily those in politics—will overtake television in 2016. But when it comes to knowing its audience, campaign strategists say Facebook remains king. “You’re just not going to find that level of data with any other ad networks,” Skatell says.

Almost every major contender or their PAC has already bought Facebook ads this year. One reason is how precise campaigns can be. Paul’s team is trying to gather email addresses for potential Iowa voters. So the campaign is running Facebook ads “to people who we know are likely caucus goers, who like Rand Paul’s page, for example, and whose email we don’t have,” Harris says.

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