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Consultants need to be ready for some tough client questions about Trump and Facebook in 2018.
Trump 2016 digital director Brad Parscale didn't tell us much that was truly new when he appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes for an interview that aired Oct. 8. An in-depth Bloomberg piece had already revealed the broad outlines of the Trump campaign's automated and data-driven Facebook outreach operation a year ago. Since then, discussion about targeted social media "dark posts" has been a staple at digital politics-related conferences and panels.
By going on 60 Minutes, though, Parscale introduced his work to the general public. It isn't just news for nerds anymore. For most people, the idea that a campaign could target content with individual precision will be novel, as will the notion that a company like Facebook would embed a team directly with a campaign to help it use the platform most effectively. Combined with outrage over the idea of Russian election interference via social media, these revelations might spark new rules for campaigns’ digital advertising.
For those of us in the campaign industry, the client questions will be more immediate. Chief among them: if Trump won by pouring money into Facebook, why aren't we doing that? Here's what consultants need to know.
Trump's campaign used Facebook on a vast scale
Parscale oversaw a social-media outreach operation that dwarfs most others. On a given day, his team might run 100,000 different Facebook ad variations aimed at countless individual segments of the electorate. Almost all of this work took place in the realm of dark posts -- content that did not appear on the campaign's official Facebook page and that is nearly impossible for outsiders to track unless they happen to be in the target demographic.
Automation made this possible. By plugging their own technology into the Facebook API, the campaign could place ads in vast quantities and measure the effectiveness of themes, wording, visuals and other creative elements in real time. In 2018 and beyond, look for other vendors to build similar systems, particularly for statewide and presidential campaigns that can take advantage of volume.
Facebook, Twitter and Google have partisan political teams
The big three online political platforms have all fielded dedicated political teams for several election cycles now. Now, Parscale accepted offers to embed staff directly within the Trump campaign. They helped him dig deep into their feature sets, identifying the best ways to use the tools to influence specific slices of voters.
The Clinton campaign took a different route: they turned down the embedded teams offered them, relied on their own social media strategists, and got vastly outspent online. As Parscale told CBS, "We took opportunities the other side didn’t.”
It seems to have paid off. Savvy consultants will build their own relationships with the vendors' political teams to benefit their clients.
Trump's campaign built a small-donor base through Facebook outreach
Campaigns have long dreamed of raising big money on social media, but few have managed to tap Facebook for dollars in a significant way. Through the testing and targeting described above, Parscale's team inspired waves of online donations totaling some $240 million.
Most importantly for future Republican candidates, their success seems to have translated to the Republican National Committee: the party is raising twice as much as their Democratic rivals and far more than ever before. Smaller campaigns will struggle to match their success, though, since few campaigns can match the passion of Trump's voter base. Consultants will need to be prepared to explain why a Trumpian small-dollar, social-media haul is out of reach for most of us.
Anyone can microtarget
Seriously, anyone. If you have a Facebook page, you can microtarget content to tiny slivers of the electorate. I once targeted ads for a client at people in North Carolina who listed "farmer" or "farm manager" as their occupation, a universe of about 5,500 people. If you're a campaign consultant and you don't know how, why or when to use Facebook's targeting options, either learn how it works or hire someone who does. Otherwise, you're doing your clients a disservice.
We still don't know how much difference it made
Of course, all of this talk comes with one fat caveat. We don't know how much difference Trump's paid social media outreach made in the actual vote. We know that Parscale's content appeared in people's Facebook timelines hundreds of millions of times.
But he has never provided numbers that I know of showing that these ads yielded new votes for Trump. For all we know, they may have been counter-productive with some people in some places. You would think that this kind of volume would produce practical results beyond the dollars raised, but campaigns spend money on things that don't help them all the time.
Consultants will have to walk a narrow line. Yes, they need to be eager to take advantage of Facebook's ability to target specific voters in bulk and at a relatively low cost. But pouring money onto bad content or the wrong targets won't help their candidates win. Test, rinse, repeat. You may not be operating at Trump’s volume, but you can still put Parscale's basic model to work.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org