I recently read Steven Johnson’s latest book, Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most and he emphasizes the use of scenario planning in better informing our decision making.
“Most scenarios end up failing to predict future outcomes,” Johnson writes, “but the very act of trying to imagine alternatives to the conventional view helps you perceive your options more clearly.”
And so, given the uncertainty around the online political advertising landscape heading into 2020, I want to outline a few possible scenarios for us to consider and help campaigners understand their options in each scenario.
Twitter, which was a little-used platform for political advertisers, kickstarted the latest conversation about what tech platforms should do about campaign advertising when it announced its ban on political ads. A more thorough discussion of that decision can be found here. But it’s worth noting that we’re already seeing cracks in how Twitter plans to enforce their ban.
Now all eyes are on Facebook and Google to see if and how they will respond as pressure mounts from outside critics to follow suit. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on Facebook, which remains a critical channel for campaign advertisers.
Possibility 1: Status Quo
The first option to consider is that Facebook does nothing and continues the course with its enhanced verification of political advertisers and ad transparency library disclosing the ads and budgets from each campaign.
Still, not everyone is happy with this scheme because media organizations – including those with explicit political biases – are exempt from the transparency requirements. Additionally, while Facebook has agreed not to fact check statements made on the platform by candidates, third party groups will be subjected to the new fact checking regime.
Under the status quo scenario, expect candidates and their campaigns to continue using the platform extensively for paid efforts, but we may see some feuds between third party groups, like Super PACs, and Facebook around removing ads and fact checking.
Possibility 2: Total Ban
If Facebook decides to follow Twitter and ban all political advertising, it will be catastrophic for any candidate not named Donald Trump. Paid advertising on the platform is critical for campaigns to grow email lists and raise money online.
Self-funded and major donor-backed candidates will have an increased advantage over grassroots upstarts. It will be difficult for many Democrats to follow through with their own self-imposed bans on corporate PAC or lobbyist donations if they don’t have access to a grassroots donor pool on Facebook.
A ban won’t reduce the amount of money spent on campaigns, however, and that money will go to other, less transparent or accountable advertising channels, including directly from publishers or through display ad networks. Some of this money may be shifted into direct mail, which has almost no transparency. Campaigns and other organizations will look more seriously at technology-enabled campaigning platforms like peer to peer text messaging and relational organizing apps.
If the ban is similar to that on Twitter, where third parties can still advertise about issues, just not candidates or legislation, the Facebook advertising landscape will be overtaken by issue group spending via c4 organizations, what Democrats like to deride as “dark money,” despite launching their own $75 million effort.
Nor will campaigns be able to ignore Facebook and Instagram altogether. Because American voters spend significant time each day on these platforms, campaigns will have to pursue more aggressive organic social media strategies. Unfortunately, because Facebook’s algorithms continue to prioritize engagement at all costs, this will incentivize candidates and their campaigns to push the envelope with edgier and edgier content designed to elicit emotional responses (and thus engagement) from voters.
Possibility 3: Prohibition of “Microtargeting”
This is an option advocated for by Ellen Weintraub of the Federal Elections Commission and others who argue that political ads should be allowed, but there ought to be restrictions on how narrowly they can be targeted. It’s a possibility even Zuckerberg is said to be entertaining. There are a number of schemes for how this could be handled, ranging from eliminating targeting via custom audiences, by which campaigns identify voters and then target ads, to only allowing campaigns to target by broad, geographical categories like district level, ZIP code, or metropolitan area.
Enforcement is a different question altogether, but any of these policies would give campaigns pause and drive them to reassess their paid Facebook strategy. Prohibiting the use of custom audiences (i.e. voter files) will mean campaign’s ad buys are less efficient and won’t be targeted only to voters, but isn’t completely catastrophic. In fact, many campaigns who only rely on custom audience targeting (and ignore user behavior and first-party data) are missing voters they should be talking to.
If the prohibition on “microtargeting” extends to not being able to use first-party behavioral data from Facebook and limits on geographical targeting, campaigns will begin shifting their paid media resources into other channels.
Without sophisticated controls on targeting, campaigns will likely be more cautious in their messaging out of concern that certain messages are less appealing to certain voters. This will likely transition Facebook messaging strategy into a more broadcast-like exercise.
Another unintended consequence is that campaigns will be less likely to leverage niche issues, like local concerns, foster care and adoption, disease research, and other topics for paid efforts if they don’t have the ability to target messages narrowly. Because while these issues are top of mind concerns for some voters – and after all, are the issues voters say they want elections to be about – they don’t motivate enough of the electorate to warrant broadcast messaging.
Finally, with these limits on paid targeting, as in scenario #2, campaigns will be pushed to play the organic engagement game on Facebook which relies on outrage and emotionality.
Perhaps the greatest concern for campaigners in all three of these scenarios is that candidates and their campaigns will be placed on unequal footing compared to issue advocacy groups, PACs, and partisan media organizations who may still take advantage of sophisticated targeting or advertising.
No matter which scenario plays out, campaigns should start investing ASAP into list building via Facebook. First, it’s the right thing to be doing to increase your online fundraising, and second, because it is possible that this important channel may not be available to you in the span of a few months.