How Political Campaigns Are Wasting Thousands of Dollars on Facebook

I might be partially guilty for this reality. I pitch Facebook ads to anyone I run into. Facebook is a very exciting tool that allows you to reach voters for a fraction of the cost of other advertising mediums like direct mail. It’s also a tool where you have to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to accomplish or you will be figuratively lighting money on fire. Here are the biggest mistakes that are commonly made on Facebook and how to better spend your advertising dollars.

Mistake #1 — Advertising Only to People Who Like Your Page

Facebook makes it REALLY easy to advertise strictly based on people who like your page. It is one of the first options that’s available when you look to boost a post. There are a handful of significant problems with this tactic though.

1. You are paying to reach people you theoretically could reach organically

Yes, some of the people who like your page will not be reached organically (i.e. for free). Wouldn’t it make sense to give Facebook’s algorithm some time to work first though? Most businesses, organizations, and politicians hope to reach NEW people, particularly if their goal is to broaden their email list. For first-time political candidates, your first few hundred likes and emails should be from family and friends that you don’t pay a cent to speak to. Your advertising dollars should be geared towards new voters who may be willing to vote for you, volunteer for your campaign, and/or donate.

2. You may be paying to reach people who aren’t voters in your district

It may be okay to advertise to non-voters if your goal is to promote a fundraising event, but even then, you should probably be reaching out to those people via email and 1-to-1 communication like calling them.

This advertisement from Roger Manno is a perfect example of this mistake. I live in Congressional District 2, while Manno is running in Congressional District 6. I can only assume I ended up in his audience because I follow his page to keep an eye on what he’s up to. I neither live in his district nor am a Democrat. I have absolutely no value to his campaign, yet his campaign paid for this advertisement to end up on my newsfeed. Many Democrats who hate Donald Trump will like his page while many Republicans who hate Hillary Clinton will like her page just to keep updated on what they’re doing. For campaigns as large as theirs, they may have some wasted spend because of that. There’s no excuse for campaigns state-wide or below though to make these mistakes. While I may be picking on Manno in this instance, I have seen advertisements from 5 different Congressional District 6 campaigns including both Democrats and Republicans appear on my newsfeed. This mistake is not only a waste of money, it also makes your campaign look like they have no idea what they’re doing.

Mistake #2 — Under-utilizing Customer Lists

Customer lists are the top reason why political advertising on Facebook is far easier than corporate advertising. When you’re a business, you have to guess who may be your customers. Sure, you have the ability to upload your customer list into Facebook and then run a Lookalike Audience, but you’re realistically still guessing. For political campaigns, you know exactly who your “customers” are going to be… they are the voters in your district! You can pull a voter file from data providers like GOP Data Center/RNC Data Trust, NGP VAN, L2, or i360, and know the primary voters from the past election. The match rate to the voter file is astounding.

I have found on average that when First Name, Last Name, Date of Birth, City, State, and Zip Code are matched from the voter file to Facebook, that Facebook can match 80-90% of those voters on average. Typically 50–70% of those matches can be reached in a slow-burn advertising campaign over the course of a month. What this means is you can guarantee that you do not waste almost any advertising dollars when compared to mediums like television or radio. This is extremely important when you’re running an election with a particularly targeted audience like a primary.

I would highly recommend breaking down your voter file and creating subset audiences. So if I’m running in a State House district, I’d probably have different voter file audiences for each town. That way if I have an event in one community instead of another, I can microtarget posts to that community. This is especially important when you’re promoting the fact that you were at specific community events.

Custom audiences can be used further to re-target groups like your email list, donor list, etc. For example, let’s say you want to make sure former donors are well aware of a fundraiser you have coming up and you also want to prospect for new donors from other state candidates (provided that’s legal in your state). You can upload these audiences into Facebook and create a combined “Saved Audience” to target these individuals. This may be a good way to ensure that the donor who may have your emails in their spam is still aware of your event coming up.

Mistake #3— Ignoring the Power of Exclusion Audiences

Exclusion audiences (also called suppression lists) are audiences that you are telling Facebook NOT to advertise to. For example, you may want to advertise to 55+ year-old Democrats, but don’t want to pay for your opponent or their supporters to see your ad. You can use an exclusion list to accomplish this.

A more common use would be to add your email list as an exclusion audience. You may want to do this if you are pushing people to sign a petition and want to acquire as many new emails for the lowest cost possible.

Facebook also highlights another very interesting use-case. Let’s say you want to re-target people who go to a specific landing page, but never follow-through on their donation. This is one way to encourage people to take further action while ensuring that people who have already donated aren’t annoyed by a second ask so soon. This requires you to install a Facebook Pixel on your website, but it can be very powerful if you are effectively driving traffic to your website.

Mistake #4 — Boosting Irrelevant Content

Political candidates: I understand you’re extremely passionate about the Fair Tax, but very few of your constituents may even know what that is or care.

I understand you want to show you’re undying support for the most popular politician in your district (typically Governor Larry Hogan in Maryland).

Ultimately though, saying you support someone with a 60%+ approval rating is kind of a no duh statement and doesn’t help you. Promoting a picture of you with that person or them endorsing you is completely different. All the time, I see candidates post how they agree with X politician on an issue that isn’t really a hot button. Even worse, they run an un-targeted ad that general election voters would hate and face huge backlash. If you’re going to boost a post on policy, you better make sure it’s something that has a lot of support and is a hot button at the time.

Which posts should you boost then? That’s actually rather easy. Boost the posts that have the greatest organic reach.

Facebook’s algorithm benefits those who share content that other people find interesting. This is true for both organic and paid reach. If more people like, comment, and share your posts, your cost per reach will typically be lower. This is especially true of sharing. You paid for the first person to see the post, but if they share it, some of their friends will see that post for free. This is how you greatly improve your advertising efficiency.

Facebook also gives you an indicator into your ad efficiency with their “Relevance Score.” Facebook states:

“Relevance score is calculated based on the positive and negative feedback we expect an ad to receive from its target audience. The more positive interactions we expect an ad to receive, the higher the ad’s relevance score will be. (Positive indicators vary depending on the ad’s objective, but may include video views, conversions, etc.) The more times we expect people to hide or report an ad, the lower its score will be.
Ads receive a relevance score between 1 and 10, with 10 being the highest. The score is updated as people interact and provide feedback on the ad. Ads with guaranteed delivery — like those bought through reach and frequency — are not impacted by relevance score. Relevance score has a smaller impact on cost and delivery in brand awareness campaigns, since those ads are optimized for reaching people, rather than driving a specific action like installs.”

Ideally, you have an advertisement that has a high relevance score, which will be determined by your targeting combined with your content. This is one of many reasons why boosting relevant content is important.

Mistake #5— Posting/Boosting Without a Purpose

A good friend of mine in politics always says “ABC — Always Be Campaigning.” For digital, this should be reworded to “ABCe — Always Be Collecting Emails.” Emails are still the lifeblood of online fundraising and digital engagement. Aside from paying your email marketing provider like NationBuilder, MailChimp, or Constant Contact, you own those emails that are on your list and can continue to send to them at a very low cost as long as the content you send is relevant.

Far too often though, political campaigns are boosting advertisements without a single call-to-action (CTA). If you are posting a news article without including a link inside the post for someone to go to your website, you’re probably doing it wrong. This isn’t to say you have to push people strictly to your website, but never waste an opportunity to drive people to a landing page to collect their information. Here’s a good example of a well-optimized advertisement from the NRSC:

The advertisement has a clear CTA, it’s an interactive video, and it’s well targeted as I’ve donated to conservative campaigns and organizations in the past. You also don’t have to search for where to click as it utilizes the “sign-up” button.

Not every advertisement will be as straightforward as this one. Perhaps your main article is to a major newspaper to build credibility. In the caption though, you can also include a link to your website encouraging someone to join your email list to keep in the loop. If you have the choice between directing someone to your website or a 3rd party though, always choose your website unless you have a tactical reason not to. You can always paraphrase a story from another source and give them credit. It’s helpful for someone to see those big bold “Volunteer” and “Contribute” buttons on your website in the right-hand corner if they do like what they hear. You don’t have that opportunity on a 3rd party website.

Mistake #6— Overselling/Selling Too Soon

Gary Vaynerchuk’s book “Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook” is a must read if you are a marketer. There are a lot of good lessons in the book, but essentially GaryVee argues that you need to set people up for the action you want them to take and don’t want to be the annoying salesperson. This concept continues into the sphere of digital advertising. It’s imperative that you introduce yourself to voters before asking for their vote, for them to volunteer, or for them to donate. Treat voter outreach like a sales funnel.

Voters need to be aware of who you are, then show an interest, then decide they will support you, then only a small chunk will decide to take action on your behalf. Looking at it through this lens, here’s how you should approach your strategy:

  1. Introduction/Biographical Video w/Survey Call-to-Action
  2. Video of you sign waving or before/after knocking their neighborhood
  3. Petition to Voters Who Indicated Specific Preferences
  4. Event Invitation to Meet and Greet
  5. Event Invitation to Political Fundraiser

You may not always be able to do it in that order, but you SHOULD NOT be making your first ask “join/volunteer for our campaign.” You will get very few signups and your cost per volunteer lead will be much higher than it should be. Your goal should be ensuring people have a positive opinion of you.

Mistake #7— Giving Up Without Testing

Most will make one of the first six mistakes and then eventually make mistake number seven. Facebook advertising DOES work, but it’s not direct mail or television. You must advertise early and often as your main goal is to build your email list and following. For some candidates, they see a lot of success at fundraising from it. Others use it purely to build their name ID. If you are doing it right in the long-term, you should be able to fundraising as much if not more than you spend. For the true pro’s like those on our UF Advisory Board, they can fundraise 2–4x as much as they spend on behalf of candidates. Here are relevant case studies though that you should take a look at:

“Facebook allowed us to customize Senator Toomey’s message to individual voter groups, speaking to the specific issues that those voters cared about,” Toomey campaign manager Peter Towey.
“Facebook Ads provided us with unique targeting capabilities to look beyond broad demographics and specifically target messages in English and Spanish to specific groups of Cuban, Puerto Rican and other descent. This allowed us to reach different sub-groups of Hispanic voters in ways that were simply not feasible on TV and radio.” Andrew Abdel-Malik, Rick Scott for Florida.
“I knew that social media was big, but was not prepared for the breadth and depth of its use as a campaign tool. We reached voters directly, and talked to them about our vision in a less serious, more personality-focused way. It’s easier to convey who you are and what your plans are on Facebook than on any other medium.” Todd Strange, Mayor of Montgomery, Alabama.

You should always be testing all of your advertising audiences, creative, and focus. The Trump campaign’s Digital Director Brad Parscale said:

“ We were making hundreds of thousands of them (ads on Facebook) programmatically.… (On an) average day (we would make) 50,000 to 60,000 ads, … changing language, words, colors, changing things because certain people like a green button better than a blue button, some people like the word ‘donate’ over ‘contribute.’”

Most campaigns won’t reach that level of testing, but you should test a handful of images, audiences, etc. For those of you interested in learning more about all the tests run by the RNC and Trump campaign, I’d recommend reading the RNC Testing Booklet linked below.


Patrick O’Keefe is the Political Director for the Maryland Republican Party, handling all external affairs for the state party.
He is also the Program Director for the Online Master’s in Political Communication at the University of Florida; the first program in the country focused exclusively on “digital in politics.”
He was previously the Chief of Staff for Delegate Christian Miele and the Head of Growth for the education-technology start-up Clutch Prep.
If you want to partner on a project, feel free to email at patrick [at] patrickokeefe.org
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