Hard Brexiteer Dominic Raab spent £56,000 testing his message on Facebook before the Tory leadership campaign even began
In the week before the Tory leadership campaign began, and candidates were required to start declaring their spending, Dominic Raab spent over £56,000 testing his leadership message with targeted ads on Facebook before abruptly pulling them all last Friday.
The 10 MPs campaigning to become the UK’s next Prime Minister are limited to spending £150,000 on their campaigns, per Conservative Party rules leaked to Sky News. However, this limit only applied to spending after last Friday, June 7th.
According to the Facebook Ad Library Report, Conservative candidate Dominic Raab spent £56,757 on political ads in the week before spending limits applied.
Between May 30th and June 7th, he promoted 130 ads, each offering small variations of message or targeting in an apparent bid to test what appeals most to the public.
In one case over 80 ads appeared using the same text but featuring various photos of Raab in different poses, superimposed with variations on his campaign slogan, including ‘Back Raab’, ‘Back Brexit’, ‘Back Raab, Back Brexit’ or ‘Fairer Britain’.
In it, the MP who draws his support from the pro-hard Brexit wing of the Conservative Party, warns that “all (MPs) promised there would be no second referendum” and that they are now trying to “cancel” the 2016 referendum.
“I will never, ever support that in any way,” he states.
The majority of the campaign’s spending (over £40k) took place in the last three days before June 7th, when Theresa May officially resigned as Conservative Party leader. Since the campaign period began Raab’s campaign has run no ads.
Who is Raab Targeting?
Scale apart, the approach Raab is taking to his campaign is somewhat confounding. At this stage of proceedings, there are really just three key ‘electorates’. First, the Conservative MPs who will decide the final two in the race. Second, the 160,000 or so Tory members who will choose between those two and third, the political journalists in Westminster who shape the perceptions of how the candidates are performing, and their suitability for the highest office.
Facebook is a poor choice for building the types of personal relationships that will help you with the parliamentary party and Westminster lobby journalists. Furthermore, it’s unlikely his campaign has direct access to the Conservative Party membership list (data protection law puts paid to that), which would allow him to target his ads using Facebook’s ‘Custom Audiences’ tool and run a much more focused and efficient campaign.
In fact, it doesn’t seem that the Raab campaign has been particularly careful with who sees their ads. It’s possible he’s targeting people ‘Interested in the Conservatives’ per Facebook’s advertising targeting criteria. In the UK, this group is 23,000,000 strong (you don’t have to like the Conservatives Facebook page to be in this category — Facebook will infer your ‘interest’ from your behaviour on the platform among other things). And the targeting may even be broader than that. Anecdotally, we’ve had reports of remain-supporting, left-wing people finding Raab ads in their Facebook newsfeed.
So another strategy seems more likely — that of using Facebook ads to test and optimise his message before rolling it out later in the campaign. This is similar to the approach taken by the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 — albeit at a much smaller scale. Campaigns can use Facebook’s tools to test adverts against one another in order to work out which get most clicks and engagement. Once you know your best performing messages, you use them in the rest of your campaign (though what value that has when the people responding aren’t the right ones is questionable).
That said, we can only make an informed guess as to what he’s hoping to achieve. It’s frustratingly difficult, as Facebook doesn’t directly provide targeting information for an entire campaign, instead giving basic demographic detail on the people who saw the ad.
For example, Raab ran one ad targeting men and women aged over 55 in England with the message “Back Brexit with Dominic Raab”. He spent between £100 and £499 and it reached 10,000–50,000 people.
In another, he targets the message “Ready to back Dominic Raab to be the next leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party?” at (mostly older) men.
And in a video message stating “WE MUST BREXIT BY OCTOBER” he targets an audience, the majority of whom are aged over 75.
In this way, Raab’s campaign has likely bought approximately 10 million impressions of its Facebook ads and has spread them far and wide, rather than focusing on the extremely select group who will ultimately make the final choice. Despite this, Raab will likely learn two things from his ads —first, which messages resonate best and, perhaps more importantly, which groups of voters are most receptive to him.
And one thing we learn for certain from his Facebook ad campaign is that, regardless of the targeting strategy he’s using, Raab’s campaign is well-funded — and he doesn’t mind his opponents knowing it.