Political Advertising

Do Facebook page likes matter? Probably more than you think

What matters most on Facebook? Is it page likes? Post engagement? Reach? Impressions? It's one of the hottest debate topics in social media, especially in the political field. The truth is that how much each metric matters largely depends on what you're trying to achieve with your Facebook page. Though it's worth keeping in mind that the publicly visible statistics of page aren't the be-all and end-all of how a page might be performing, but they're a useful starting point.

While some digital consultants might be quick to dismiss page likes as a "vanity metric", I'd be just as quick to dismiss them as having just demonstrated that they have no idea what they're talking about. Page likes are useful for a few reasons:

  1. Organic reach: The more page likes you have, the more people are likely to see and engage with your content without you having to spend any money to promote it, and with funding for social media always competing with other  
  2. Viral-multiplier: Other than ensuring a decent background level of visibility for your page, a page with more page likes is far more likely to have a piece of content go viral organically thanks to there being more eyeballs on it.
  3. Community support: Having more page likes means you have a larger community of supporters who are ready to engage with your content, whether that's reacting, commenting, or sharing it. The largely that community is, the more validation it gives to others who are part of that community.

As a rule of thumb I've usually found that page likes usually translate to a page reaching around two to three times that number of unique people each week - and that's without advertising money. So an active page with around 200,000 likes will reach between 400,000 and 600,000 people on a standard week. That's a pretty useful multiplier to get your content out there. And one of the basics of advertising is to get as many eyeballs as possible looking at your ads.

Other than understanding how large your potential organic audience could be, the more page likes you have, the more statistically relevant the demographic, geographic, and interests information you can pull from Facebook's analytics tool will be. Having a better understanding of who your core audience is, and then being able to break that down into more targeted information for advertising latter on, is invaluable to putting relevant content in front of people.

Which brings us to reach and impressions - essentially two sides of the same coin. It's useful to define both of these as they're often misused by people (usually to inflate their own success). Reach should refer to the number of unique users who have seen a piece of content from your page. Impressions should be the total number of times content has been seen from your page (e.g. often the same person seeing multiple pieces of content, or the same piece of content multiple times). This allows you to divide impressions by reach and understand just how often people are likely to be seeing content from you. Reach and impressions are useful for comparing social media with traditional advertising mediums, say TV spots or newspaper ads as you're able to use similar metrics to judge success.

For example, you could run an ad asking for donations simultaneously on social media and in print and TV advertising, and on each channel you could use a slightly different URL. Using that unique URL, as well as knowing how many people were likely to have seen the ad in each channel, you're then able to understand which was the most cost effective in driving donations (hint - it's almost always going to be social).

Like TV and newspaper ads though, reach and impressions don't necessarily mean that someone has actually noticed your content. Just as TV and newspaper metrics assume that because someone has seen a show or picked up a newspaper, and thus seen your ad, Facebook, and indeed other social media channels, assume that someone flicking through their newsfeed and seeing your content has actually noticed it. Often it'll be something they've shot straight past while scrolling down their feed without giving it a second thought. If you ever wonder why pages keep experimenting with differing video and graphic dimensions - it's because they're trying to maximise the amount of real estate they take up on your screen while you're browsing.

This is where engagement metrics come into play, as you can usually assume that someone engaging with a piece of content - whether it's clicking on a post, reacting to it, commenting, or sharing it, means that they A) Have genuinely seen it, and B) It actually held their attention enough for them to do something with it. While to some extent higher engagement rates do drive your post to have greater reach in Facebook's algorithms (though I've seen pieces of content with fantastic engagement reach tiny audiences relative to page size) at the very least it gives you the ability to understand see what content is attention grabbing enough that people stop and look at it.

As I said at the start, these publicly available metrics aren't the full story. Much of what goes on with social media advertising, especially Facebook, isn't visible. The notion of "dark posts" for instance (while the name is a bit melodramatic for me - it's like claiming a newspaper advert put in one local paper, but not another, or an ad put in the sports section but not the news section, is a "dark ad") is one area where a page might look relatively quiet from the general public's view, but in actuality there could be a whole host of activity taking place from paid advertising campaigns that aren't readily apparent.

This was largely the case in the United States 2016 election where the day-to-day content you saw posted on the main candidates' pages was only a fraction of their online activity. Even though, for instance, Hillary Clinton may have been posting upwards of six to eight times a day, she would also have dozens, if not hundreds of supporting ad campaigns running in the background with targeted messages for specific voting groups.

There's no doubt a similar approach is being used by all the parties in this election, though given our more restrictive election spending rules, much smaller size, and less advanced Facebook advertising tools, we're unlikely to see the same level of sophistication here.

In the end, Facebook page likes do matter, but a lack of page likes can be circumvented by spending money on advertising. They're not the only page metric you should pay attention to, but they're an easy top-line indicator of a page's health and potential audience reach. Page likes, and page like growth, are also two of the most popular metrics to appear in media reports on political social media, so it doesn't hurt to have both these figures looking healthy.

Will Labour's water tax cost them the election?

Despite Labour and Jacinda Ardern's spectacular rise in the polls over the past week, National and Bill English don't need to panic. Other than National continuing to focus on New Zealand's economic success, Jacinda's announcement of a water tax on commercial water users might just, in combination with the threat the Green Party poses to regional infrastructure projects, cost Labour their chance of forming the next government.

On the surface Jacinda Ardern's announcement that Labour will introduce a commercial water tax seems like a sensible one. People generally didn't seem thrilled about overseas bottling companies paying next to nothing to bottle up water and ship it offshore. Had the tax been targeted at them, it mightn't have ticked all the boxes for environmental groups, but it would have effectively scratched an itch that was bothering New Zealand.

The problem was Labour not only want to extend the tax to all commercial water users, including farmers who they've hit with a double whammy of plans to introduce new restrictions on farming methods without lifting the prohibitions on technology (like genetically modified organisms) that could help achieve this.

What Labour also assumed was a sensible policy move of saying that they won't commit to a tax figure on water until after the election when they meet with stakeholders, has turned out to be a terrible political move. It's already being seen by our primary sector as a disingenuous ploy to avoid a hard conversation about it on the campaign trail. It stinks of being both a policy that has been poorly thought out and of leaving the door open for this to become a massive tax on agricultural activity.

Labour has left the door open for National severely punish them not only in provincial New Zealand, but also in the mortgage beltway. To illustrate this, just look at how in just a few hours after the announcement, Labour had already lost control of the framing of the announcement:

Notice a theme? Water tax, water tax, water tax. Labour's "royalty" is already framed as a not only a tax, but a tax that will decimate our farmers and provincial economies, as well as hitting mortgage belt Middle New Zealand in the pocket with higher prices for dairy and produce.

In my mind, National there are three things National needs to do from this:

  1. Make a commitment to provincial New Zealand that National won't tax the agricultural sector for water use and promote the hell out of it before Winston Peters and New Zealand First can get in.
  2. Run a campaign targeting those provincial electorates pointing out the threat to their livelihoods if Labour won and did introduce the water tax combined with the threat the Greens could also pose if they forced a Labour government to cancel crucial irrigation and regional infrastructure projects.
  3. Target the Middle New Zealand mortgage belt with a campaign pointing out the potential and significant price rises to everyday (and healthy!) foodstuffs that the combination of Labour's water tax and other policies could have.

If you doubt this approach will work, take a look at the Mediscare campaign that the Australian Labor Party ran in their 2016 election. Despite some pretty dubious claims made and methods used by the ALP, it's widely credited with helping bring Bill Shorten within a whisker of an unprecedented victory. The advantage National has in this regard is that, unlike the ALP, Jacinda and Labour have made the commitment that water will be taxed, and left the door wide open for speculation about the potential impact of that.

This is where social media can play an important role in turning around this type of policy attack content very quickly so that you're capitalising on the issue being fresh in people's minds. Already National's Nathan Guy has enjoyed amazing success by posting a video of his fantastic speech to the House from Wednesday's General Debate to Facebook. In less than 24 hours the video has already been watched by 43,000 people, shared 412 times, and has resonated hugely well with those involved in the primary sector.

Given that National doesn't want to make the mistake that Labour and Helen Clark did in 2008 of going after the personality and popularity of the opposition leader, this type of wedge issue not only ties in perfectly with their overall narrative. National want's to tell people that they're the party that's delivering economic success for New Zealand, so something like this will really hits home for many peopl;e about the danger that a Labour/Green government would pose to that success. It's a policy based attack, Labour's made a key mistake in launching an incomplete policy and losing control of its farming, and National has a really good chance to turn this into an issue that could cost Labour badly.

Mobilise - The end game of getting out the votes

At the time of writing we're five weeks away from the start of advance voting and four weeks from overseas voting, so it's a timely opportunity to look at the end game of political campaign communications - mobilising your supporters and voters to turn up and cast their ballots for you. In political circles this is known as GOTV - Get out the vote.

Mobilise communications fall into two specific activities. The first is Enrolment. As a political campaign you want to make sure your supporters are correctly enrolled to vote, so there's a huge premium on political parties to push this. Given voter behaviour and demographics are the way they are, this has traditionally been less of a concern for right-wing political parties whose voter demographics tend to skew towards older New Zealanders who are more sedentary in their lifestyles so their enrolment details are usually up to date. Left-wing parties, whose voter demographics tend the other way towards younger, more geographically mobile people, thus have more of a challenge on their hands.

This is why over the past couple of election cycles we've seen differing efforts in New Zealand to mobilise these voters. While there's debate over the political leanings of some of these efforts, groups like Rock Enrol or FFS Vote (For Future's Sake) are examples of third-party attempts to mobilise voters.

The parties themselves take slightly different approaches. The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, for example, put a significant amount of effort in trying to engage overseas voters, as is evidenced by their having an "international candidate" whose job is to secure votes from the Kiwi diaspora around the world. Likewise, Labour is showing signs of trying to engage Kiwis living in Australia with a recent Facebook event calling for volunteers in Melbourne.

If this was 2014 you'd see this activity quite visibly ramp up, but 2017 might be a somewhat different beast. With improvements in social media and online ad targeting since 2014, the majority of the Mobilise content that's going to be produced from an online perspective is going to be below-the-line advertising.

The rationale for this is pretty simple and somewhat cynical. Political parties only want to mobilise their own supporters to vote, so the more you can focus your GOTV activities to focus on your core supporters, the better off in theory you'll be. What all the parties will be doing at the moment is figuring out exactly who they need to talk to in those final three weeks of the campaign in order to mobilise them as voters.

To achieve this from a social media perspective they'll look at all the voter data they've collected via the previous two phases of communication - Persuade and Participate - and match that up with online advertising tools. Whether it's plugging carefully curated email lists into Facebook's ad tool, selectively buying Google AdWords, or targeted advertisements on major news sites, you can generally assume that if you see an ad from any of the major political parties (National, Labour, the Greens and NZ First), you're seeing it because you match some type of demographic, behavioural, or geographic filter that suggests you might vote for them.

While the advertising tools on social media here aren't as detailed as are available in the United States and United Kingdom, they're still detailed enough when partnered with your own data to allow campaigners to be pretty confident they're talking to the right people. It won't always be perfect, for instance I've found Facebook's geographic filters here aren't particularly accurate, but it's much more cost effective at reaching a far greater number of people.

If you doubt the importance of this, you only need to look at the U.S. election. Donald Trump not only campaigned more in key battleground rust belt states, but ultimately was able to mobilise a greater number of supporters to vote than Hillary Clinton, enabling him to benefit from the quirks of the electoral college.

Participate - Petitions aren't just about supporting an issue anymore

Think by signing your name and email to an online petition that you're showing your support for an issue that's important to you? Think again. While getting you to show your support for something is part of the reason why political parties and lobby groups hit you with an endless stream of petitions and sign up pages, it's no longer the primary driver of this behaviour.

Ultimately it's all about getting your email address and starting you on a pathway to being an active support and participant in their campaign or cause.

Having already covered the extensive lengths political campaigns go to in persuading you to support them, I'm now going to look at how they aim to - and I apologise for borrowing a corporate term here - move you up their value chain.

Generally the value chain that political campaigns, lobby groups, and NGOs use goes something like this:
Voter sees content about an issue > Voter signs up via a petition on that issue > Voter receives request to donate > Voter receives request to join campaign/cause > Voter is asked to volunteer.

The idea is that each step in this path represents a greater commitment from the person they're targeting, and to move people along that value chain you need to be able to speak to them in an increasingly more targeted and personal way.

Traditionally political campaigns have done this through building voter files, and none do it better than the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States. As I've previously recommended, Sasha Issenberg's The Victory Lab does a fantastic job of explaining how this data driven approach has both evolved and is implemented in the U.S.

Where the U.S. and overseas jurisdictions differ from New Zealand is that their privacy and information sharing laws are much more lax than those here. If, like me, you've signed up to receive emails from both the Republicans and the Democrats, you may have noticed that you also eventually receive other emails from affiliated campaigns and causes. That's because they're constantly buying, selling, and refining their voter files to get the best possible information on voters so they can better identify those they want to target, and what messages that want show them.

What's changed in the last decade hasn't necessarily been this approach, it's been the channels it's applied to and the scale on which it can be done. Prior to the internet and social media it was used to micro-target direct mail, newspaper, radio, and TV advertising buying, door knocking, and phone calling. Now the same methodology is being used on social media, email, and online ad platforms, and it's backed up by data on an unprecedented scale.

As I mentioned before, New Zealand's privacy laws means that unlike the U.S. where political parties go and buy massive consumer data sets from commercial providers, that's simply not possible here. The net result has been that New Zealand's political parties, lobby groups, and NGOs have to go out and build these data sets themselves largely from scratch. This is why signing your name, age, email address, and town or postcode to a petition is almost mandatory to be able to show your support for it. Because once they have that data, they can add a line to their voter file with your name, contact details, demographic and geographic information, and issue tags to it.

The idea then is that they begin to target you through their online channels to get you to take the next step. Signed a petition? How about you donate so you can support us as we fight for it? Donated? Why not join our campaign and be part of a community of like-minded people? Joined our campaign? How about getting out and about and volunteering to help us out?

Next, because you've signed a petition on a specific issue, that party, lobby group, or NGO now knows you have a potential interest in that topic, so they can tailor content to serve to you whether it's via sending segmented emails to specific audiences, use it to target Google AdWords or SEO optimise a website, or uploading that email list into Facebook to let it create a broader audience of people who are similar to you via their demographic, geographic, and Facebook activities. On this final note, it's important to keep in mind that Facebook doesn't share that data on who else might look like you with someone who's setting up ads, but it does mean political parties can continually refine their voter files, data analysis, and targeting strategies by serving up similar content to those people.

While the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand have, in my mind, historically been the best at this, largely borrowing techniques from Greenpeace, WWF, and Forest & Bird, as far as I'm aware the Labour Party have had the single most successful sign up campaign with their "What number baby are you?" My understanding is that Labour gained somewhere in the order of 40,000 to 50,000 new email addresses to it, and while there was a larger than normal level of backlash to it when people realised they were also signing up to Labour's email list, I'd wager that the churn of unsubscribes they were getting were far outweighed by the gains they made.

It's also worth pointing out that contrary to the headline in the above article that Labour was tricking people into signing up, from my experience there's usually been text (and I believe it's a legal requirement) to the effect that signing a petition means you're agreeing to receive communications from that political party and its candidates.

As someone who's worked in this field, the notion that this is somehow a political dark art I think isn't really fair. Rather, it's part and parcel of the continuing evolution of not just communications practice, but what we're seeing more generally too across society. Other than long-standing commercial use of consumer data to target people with advertising, this approach also has the potential to offer massive benefits from a civic and social perspective too.

Whether it's getting people to engage with our democracy at all its levels, being able to understand how to communicate with people in a crisis via targeted alerts across mobile phones, social channels, and physical alerts, or being able to more accurately predict and intervene early to prevent health or law and order issues, data like this can and is used in a responsible and productive way. We're hugely fortunate in New Zealand that we do have very robust structures in place for governing its use responsibly, and a culture that does err on the side of caution about its use.

Next time we'll look at how political campaigns aim to Mobilise their supporters to get out and vote for them, a phase of political campaigning that now spans the two weeks prior to polling day with the opening of overseas and advance voting.

Persuade, Participate, Mobilise - the three phases of political communications

While digital channels may have revolutionised the delivery and ability to engage with political communications, the primary driving purposes of those communications hasn't. They're either trying to persuade you to vote for something, get you to participate in helping promote that cause, and ultimately mobilise you into voting come election day.

For the next few blogs I'm going to drill down into each of these phases and how we're seeing them play out in the digital space, particularly looking at how social media, email, and data are used in their delivery. But for today, I'm going to focus on defining these categories what specific type of messaging falls into them.

Persuade is all about getting the message out about why someone should vote for you. In a New Zealand context with our short election cycle, Persuade content never really stops being produced, but it kicks into overdrive about a year out from each election. It's where the parties settle on the value proposition they're going to put to voters, develop and release their policy platforms, and attack the values and policies of other parties. This is the bread and butter stuff in the digital space, with social media graphics and videos, websites, email campaigns, needing to produce bucket loads of content to support it.

Participate is turning that support for your values and policies into donations, memberships, and volunteers come campaign time. This is why parties are so eager to get you to sign your name, email address, and other contact details to issues and petitions. Once they have those details in their database, you've taken the first step in a process designed to convert you from a potential voter into an active party member who volunteers - think Labour's very successful Baby Number campaign. While this does take place throughout the election cycle, unlike Persuade content the real guts of this happens in the months leading up to the start of the campaign, as well as during the first few weeks of the campaign. The obvious reason being that you not only need money to run a campaign, but also volunteers to door knock, make phone calls, deliver flyers, erect and wave hoardings, and generally populate your ground game.

Mobilise is the get out the vote component of political communications. Whereas in the past this took the form of activities on polling day itself, such as door knocking and offering supporters lifts to the polling station, advance voting has meant that you're now looking at a two to three week period where this will be much more intense. In fact, if you look back at each election since 2002 when advance voting was introduced, National has performed better in the advance voting period than it has overall, illustrating the real importance that this aspect of the Mobilise phase of communications has taken on.

As I mentioned before, in the next few blog entries I'll drill down into each of Persuade, Participate, and Mobilise, as well as look at how digital channels and social media in particular have impacted them.

Would rather donate to charity than spend on political ads? Yeah right!

If you're going to say you'd rather donate $1 million to charity than spend it on political advertising you'd think that's a pretty easy thing to stick to, wouldn't you? Not for Gareth Morgan's The Opportunities Party (TOP) it seems.

TOP got a lot of attention last month for announcing that, in protest over the advertising money allocated to political parties, that it would donate $1 million to charity because they'd rather do that than spend it on political advertising. Rightly, they received a reasonable amount of press coverage for it and while many saw it as a cynical ploy for Gareth Morgan to get himself back in the news, it was at least going to do some good.

So far, so good. Except you'd think if you've just announced you'd rather donate to charity rather than pay for political advertising then you'd not run paid advertisements. Seems pretty simple?

Except that it's not that simple for TOP. To be fair, you can almost forgive them for spending money on promoting their ads about how they don't want to spend money on ads and donate it to charity. The net effect of it all is that some very worth charities are going to get badly needed funds.

The problem is, TOP has now gone on something of a political advertising spree including with print and Facebook ads.

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The above are all clearly examples of political advertising. The first one teasing the release of TOP's health policy, the next on meeting the leader of TOP, another on their deputy leader on what can be done to bring down grocery prices, and the final one on water policy. They're all examples of paid political advertising. So what happened when I challenged TOP on this blindingly obvious hypocrisy on their part?

 

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This is where TOP is really getting disingenuous about their advertising. Being very familiar with Facebook's advertising platform, and given the frequency that I've seen their ads, they're clearly putting a significant amount of funding behind them to get that type of frequency that I've been seeing. So it's not just $100 on a single Facebook promotion, but a very broad and well backed political advertising campaign across a range of content and channels, including that ad in the Dominion Post too.

I'd also wager that TOP simply doesn't care about their hypocrisy either. If you've ever witnessed either their leader or deputy leader on Twitter, they both appear, in my opinion, to be rather immune to any criticism or contrary views whatsoever.

UPDATE 5 July 2017 10:40am: Contrary to TOP's Facebook comment posted above, apparently they do have a billboard on the corner of Willis and Boulcott Streets in Wellington. Gareth Morgan's left and right hands evidently aren't talking to each other, or they just don't care...

UPDATE 5 July 2017 3:55pm: Have now been supplied a photo of the billboard. Looks like TOP is treating everyone as fools.

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