Online political ad transparency tools from Facebook, Twitter, and Google are giving us an unprecedented look into the digital strategies of campaigns and PACs, but unfortunately many decision makers, journalists, and voters lack the necessary context to make sense of this data.
We’ve seen a raft of stories that miss the mark by drawing the wrong conclusions about campaign strategy based solely on information gleaned from the ad archives, like this one from Axios declaring “Trump’s 2020 plan: Target seniors on Facebook,” and these near daily fits from Judd Legum at Popular Information.
“The list building activities are optimized to the messages that are most likely to convert signups at the lowest cost. This is driven by conversations happening on social media and in the news rather than the campaign’s message or agenda.”
Understanding that social media ads are largely focused on converting supporters into email subscribers in order to convert them to donors is an essential context for making sense of the political ad archives.
If someone reads more into it than, “this is what’s getting the best cost per acquisition on this platform at this time,” they’ll miss the mark.
Often, reporters will see a petition and think the campaign is running a secret message or is shifting tactics, but the reality is the campaign is putting its limited resources behind the petition or survey with the lowest cost per conversion. Don’t read too much into the ads a campaign promotes for list building.
Message testing doesn’t happen on Facebook, campaigns don’t turn to Twitter to conduct voter suppression, and paying for Google ads isn’t undermining Democracy.
How You Should Use the Ad Archives
The competitive intelligence provided by these transparency tools is a gift for digital strategists. For years, we’ve envied the TV ad makers’ ability to track the points an opponent is putting on broadcast and cable because this usually comes with a subsequent arms race to go point for point on TV. I’m encouraging operatives to do the same with the new transparency tools.
From a journalist’s perspective, there are some very interesting basic questions, like who is advertising? Is one campaign up on a platform while another isn’t? What PACs and outside groups are spending money online?
If a campaign is only spending money to grow their social media followers and promote content rather than converting supporters to email, it’s a good indication that they’re pursuing a bad digital strategy.
The new transparency tools bring online advertising on the leading platforms into line with other campaign advertising method, but it’s not an apples to apples comparison. Without the proper context, it’s easy to misunderstand what the data in the ad archives is saying.