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Navigating 2020’s Unpredictable Digital Ads Landscape

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The 2020 Breakdown: 

Make no mistake: The digital ads landscape is changing at a rate faster than many causes and campaigns are equipped to handle. It’s moving so rapidly that it’s safe to say the methods of digital advertising you use in Q1 may be different by the time Q4 rolls around. Keeping up with all the changes can be overwhelming, especially for mission-driven organizations for whom significant digital ad campaigns are relatively new. Yet impactful digital ads have become essential to effective outreach, persuasion and organizing online. With both the 2020 Election and #Census2020 in full swing, it’s imperative that your message gets in front of your audiences—even in this age of digital unpredictability. 

We’ve compiled this comprehensive guide of emerging trends for you to follow so that your campaigns don’t fall flat. 

1. Combating Misinformation Campaigns:

With the Census 2020 get-out-the-count (GOTC) initiative on its way, Facebook is targeting disinformation campaigns designed to sway census participation. Specifically, “ads that describe participating in the U.S. census as “useless” or “meaningless” are no longer allowed on Instagram or Facebook.” This is remarkable, as Facebook has taken a controversial stance on fact-checking political speech in the past. That said, it’s unfortunately still possible to spread misinformation on Facebook for political ads which may lead, for example, to similar voter suppression efforts seen in both 2016 and 2018. To date, Facebook’s policy is that they will neither fact-check nor remove false political ads nor limit in any way how those ads are targeted to Facebook users.

2. Restrictions on Microtargeting:

Many platforms have begun to roll out terms of service limiting microtargeting that take a step past transparency and into the territory of full restriction. Google has been the most proactive, even going as far as banning “remarketing”, which is the act of marketing to people who have taken an action or engaged with an advertiser (i.e by visiting their website.)

The banning of remarketing and microtargeting can potentially impact underfunded grassroots organizations, some of whom use remarketing to make the most effective campaigns from the limited resources they have, and to disseminate information to users who have expressed interest by engaging and taking action. Remarketing and narrow political targeting was one technique on which smaller advertisers such as nonprofits, foundations and down-ballot candidates relied on to ensure they were reaching the right people.

As platforms are still struggling to walk a fine line between profitability, shifting legal compliance needs and ethical political practices, many have decided to distance themselves from politics entirely.

3. Facebook Pulls Political Ads in Washington State:

In 2018, Facebook decided to circumvent Washington state’s tight laws surrounding political digital ad spending by banning political ads related to local and state politics. Although local and state political ads are technically banned, you can still run national political ads, proving that Facebook’s regulation and approval practices remain notoriously uneven. This has resulted in candidates getting disproportionately flagged. One example of this is the fact that Seattle City Council candidate, Heidi Wills, was able to run a handful of ads on Facebook while her opponent, Kate Martin, was blocked from running any ads at all. 

While banning political ads altogether may seem like an easy way for platforms to “see no evil, hear no evil”, it’s a difficult policy to implement with the overwhelming amount of content uploaded daily. We recommend focusing your messaging on the issues that are impacted by politics, rather than overtly political ads. Consider an emphasis on education, awareness and/or branding around the issues rather than the ballot initiative itself, for instance. It’s also wise to keep an eye on legal restrictions on political digital advertising that may pop up in other states in the future.

4. A Trend in Banning Political Ads

Back in November 2019, Twitter announced that it would ban political ads of all kinds. Spotify,  TikTok and Pinterest have placed strict “no-political ad” policies in place. Yet organic political punditry is rampant and increasingly well-organized on TikTok among Gen Z and younger audiences. Influencer engagement – paid or direct outreach – may be one way to navigate around TikTok and other platforms’ restrictions while still getting your message to the target audiences. 2020 presidential candidates such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have also created their own streaming channels ahead of the election, essentially creating uninterrupted political advertisements on the platform. 

Furthermore, Google and YouTube are seeking a third way — they are disallowing false political ads only but will only take action in select cases due to the scope of the issue. Snapchat and Reddit on the other hand will be using human review to screen for false ads, a more aggressive and hands-on approach. Understanding the varying policies among the major platforms and pivoting as they change will be crucial to successful digital ad engagement in the 2020 cycle. It is reassuring to know, however that almost every platform is willing to take action on digital ads that engage specifically in voter suppression, including attempts to dissuade people from voting.

5. Facebook’s “Opt Out” Feature:

Did you know that Facebook has released a revolutionary “opt out” feature, where users can opt out of targeted ads altogether with the click of a button? While we currently don’t have data on how many users have decided to opt out or how many will choose to use this feature going forward, it is clear that the opt out feature may make implementing effective advertising campaigns increasingly difficult for organizations with small budgets. Creativity is a must!

What To Do: 

As the balance between transparency and censorship in the digital ads landscape continues to teeter back and forth, we predict it will take some time before that balance reaches equilibrium. Here are some methods we advise testing in the meantime: 

Contextual ads: 

While microtargeting may be banned on Google, contextual targeting will always be a tried and true method of getting your advertisements seen. Contextual targeting is when you use keywords, topic and/or a webpage’s data is used to inform the content of the advertisements shown. Although it is less precise than microtargeting, this method avoids user data altogether, and can be quite effective with extensive market research and keyword optimization.

Influencer and creator engagement: 

Trying to inspire the youth vote? 80% of Gen Z college students are expected to turn out to vote in the presidential elections, and 80% of Gen Z students use social platforms. In the past few years, becoming an influencer is a viable source of income for many, as they have become conduits between products and consumers. 

While using influencers may be a major plus, make sure there is a consistent brand identity and brand authenticity between your campaign and the influencers you choose. Are you authentically reaching out to micro-influencers who have demonstrated a sincere interest in your issue or candidate? Are you targeting creators with audiences that overlap with those important to move your mission? Former presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg recently paid meme account influencers to post satirical memes about him, and the result notoriously and publicly fell flat with young voters. We’ve worked with influencer marketing platforms such as Upfluence to help our partners design campaigns that appeal to younger, diverse millennial influencers in battleground states and beyond that reach millions of people who hang on their words, images and videos. We’ve also found that while pay-for-play has become common in corporate influencer spon con (or sponsored content), many creators are excited to help lend a hand for free or for low-cost message merch to support democracy in action. Encouraging an influencer to wear a t-shirt or pose with a mug with your mission’s message on it in front of their audience is worth a thousand words in front of hundreds of thousands or millions of people.

Crowdsourced content: 

User-generated content can be a great way to reach your audience, especially when it’s clear, concise, relevant and catchy. In November of 2019, independent content producer Matt Orfalea created a 5 minute long video for Bernie Sanders through extracting clips of the presidential candidate at rallys, voiceovers of his speeches, videos of his supporters, and inspirational public domain music. The video cost Orfalea zero dollars to make, and he did it out of his passion for the campaign as a supporter. That video ended up receiving millions of views via sharing across thousands of social pages and platforms, essentially serving as a political ad without the restrictions and regulations that a political ad typically faces. A recent study found that 65% of Gen Z reported creating and sharing content on a regular basis. User-generated content has a lot of potential and can embolden your target audience to engage with your campaign whether it’s an IE, ballot initiative, candidate campaign or even a general awareness & activation push in a creative and hands-on way. Nevertheless, we would highlight that exponentially more people can be reached when you supplement crowdsourced or user-generated activity with an actual digital budget that can help boost the performance of an organically viral campaign using targeting to those audiences who are most important to you and for whom it’s most exciting.

Final thoughts: 

In conclusion, the digital ads landscape has never been more fluid or unstable, especially for those with mission-driven and/or political pushes. Yet there are many strategic and tactical ways in which you can adapt (and must in this competitive environment) that can make all the difference in whether you’re able to get the right message to the right audience at the right time using digital ads for organizing and outreach. Whether you’re focused on awareness, direct response, persuasion or acquisition, Do Big Things has the expertise to help your cause or candidate make the most of your precious GOTC and GOTV digital advertising dollars. Our team—70% women and 50% people of color reflects the audiences that most causes and candidates need to succeed in this cycle and we already have a stack of wins based on our insights and experiences. Get in touch to learn more or ask us questions about our tips, tricks and trends above… we can’t wait to partner with you.

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