50,000 Heck*ng Facebook Ad Variants?!

or, Demystifying the brute force Facebook digital political ad campaign.

Jeez, that sounds badass…

After the devastating loss that we Democrats suffered in 2016, all of us looked around for someone or something to blame. Maybe Clinton didn’t hit the Rust Belt enough. Maybe it was Comey’s botched investigation and poorly timed announcements. It could have been the Russians. Or, maybe it was Brad Parscale’s internet wizardry.

Despite the fact that most of us involved in the digital sides of the campaign are pretty leery of that last explanation, and so are other experts. But no matter how you feel about the results, a fairly common refrain was that we got our asses handed to us online by the Trump team, and Trump’s allies (foreign and domestic). And a thing that everyone seems to cite as evidence is the huge number of ad variants they ran.

I’m but a humble digital political consultant, but I think it would really be helpful to dig into what we talk about when we talk about ad variants online. It’s really pretty easy to come up with a large number of ad variants using just tweaking a few different variables in several ways. To be honest, I’ve worked with a clients where my team of two could easily launch with somewhere on the order of 15,000 variants, so it doesn’t even really take a large team.

Since Senator Kamala Harris has gotten pretty much universal acclaim for her digital (and IRL) campaign launch a couple weeks ago, let’s use her famous 25,000 ad variants as an example. (n.b. Were I a real journalist, I would have just called up Mike, Loren, and Shelby over at Harris’ digital consulting firm, Authentic Campaigns, for comment, but this is pretty easy to explain without hassling them.)

With 8 main configurable elements to a Facebook ad, you can see how quickly ad variants add up.

So, I just slid on over to the Facebook Ad Archive to see some of the ads the Harris campaign had been running recently (note this was running for only about 24 hours). And, as I’ve highlighted above, there are really about 8 pieces of the ad you can tweak to create your total number of ad variants, that you then bulk upload and let the Facebook robots sort out for you, culling the ones that don’t generate the most response (most of them), and displaying more the of the ones that do, generating happier customers for Facebook, and vast numbers of email signups and filthy lucre for the political advertiser.

First, a quick math refresher for folks: Remember exponents from junior high school math (maybe elementary school)? They’re the thing where you multiply a number by itself. They’re relevant here because if you create your ad content in such a way that you can mix and match things like ad text, the button text, button color, the image text, and what not, you can very rapidly hit some pretty big numbers of possible combinations. For example:

5 add texts (number 1, above), * 5 pictures (#2) * 5 image texts (#3) * 5 Buttons (#4), 5 headlines (#6) * 5 URLs (#7)(n.b. realistically, you may only have one or two options here, but let’s just go with five for argument’s sake) * and 5 calls to action (#8) (again, you have fewer options here). After all of that, you end up with 5 raised to the 8th power, which is…

Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

390,625 Facebook ad variants, using just with five options for each of eight variables.

Again, in practice, you may only have one or two URLs, and you only would use one or two of the Facebook-supplied call-to-action buttons, but you can EASILY create far more than 5 main texts for your ad, create several button color and text combinations with different photos, and you’ll get to 25,000+ pretty quickly.

What you will notice too, if you hit the Facebook Ad Archive, is how many ads you can create WITHOUT having a lot of photo options. Here, take a quick look at Amy Klobuchar, who just launched on Sunday.

For the record, I pulled this report at like 5:45 p.m. Pacific, and she already had more than 300 variants in the system, and who knows how many more they’ll have by the time the launch day is through.

The other thing most people don’t realize when they hear about the massive numbers of ad variants modern, well-resourced campaigns are running these days is that the marginal benefit may not be quite what you expect. At massive scale, it can certainly boost your bottom line. However, none of us are being too public about those numbers.

Ultimately, you absolutely DON’T need to run 25,000 ad variants or more to have a successful digital campaign, but if you can afford the elbow grease to do it, you will see better results. At least now you’ve seen how easy it is to GET to 25,000 if you want to.


I’d love to you hear your thoughts. You can find me tweeting about advertising, digital politics, whisk(e)y, giant fighting robots and cephalopods at @SteveOlson — and if you liked this post, I’d appreciate you clicking the “clap” button below. Thanks!