Jul 25, 2018


Post by 
George Potts

his is first in a series of posts about the groundbreaking New York University (NYU) examination of Facebook’s new United States political ad archive launched May 24, 2018.

President Donald Trump and Congressman Beto O’Rourke are the two biggest Facebook political ad spenders according to the recently published study.

The Trump Make America Great Again Committee and Donald J. Trump for President Inc. spent at least $274,100 combined on 9,500 plus ads generating at least 37.6MM impressions. This is:

  • 2% of the aggregate spend of $13.9MM by all political advertisers in the report time period,
  • 3.5% of all 267,000 ads collected, and
  • 2.6% of political ad impressions.

The study published minimum spends and impressions for the top 10 vetted political sponsors. Minimum total spend and impressions for all 267K ads in the analysis is used for the comparison above.

Directly related to the Trump’s paid Facebook efforts, NYU’s analysis uncovered the possibility for “errors and ambiguity” in archive reporting as well as the challenge of maintaining separation between PACs and campaign committees on the platform. NYU reports:

. . . there are two personal sponsors, one that is a single candidate PAC for President Trump and the other is President Trump’s campaign committee. Both of these sponsors linked their ads to President Trump’s Facebook page which is categorized as “person.” Facebook’s choice to require political content ads to include sponsors enables us to distinguish which political content ads were paid for by which organization. This example also exposes the possibility for errors and ambiguity when using page category as a method of classifying sponsors. Arguably this page should be categorized as Politician. It is also interesting that this PAC and President Trump’s campaign committee are linking political ads to the same Facebook page. One of the rules for PACs is that they cannot coordinate with a politician’s campaign organization.

U.S. Representative for the Texas’ 16th congressional district, O’Rourke, is challenging Republican incumbent Ted Cruz for his United States Senate seat. Raising $6.7MM in the first quarter of 2018 and having $8MM cash on hand at the end of the quarter, O’Rourke received nationwide attention for his fundraising. He is sure to get more notice given that his Beto For Texas campaign committee outspent Trump’s campaign committee on Facebook advertising.

According NYU, Beto For Texas spent at least $194.4K on Facebook advertising in the study time period. This is $4K more than the Trump Make America Great Again Committee. Unlike the Trump campaign however, O’Rourke’s spend was concentrated on just 337 ads compared to the 4,127 Facebook ads trafficked by the Trump campaign committee. This certainly indicates a difference in platform ad strategy by the two campaigns.

While the spends are relatively equal between Trump and O’Rourke campaign committees, Trump’s spend delivered 26.4MM impressions while O’Rourke’s delivered 50% less impressions, only 13MM. Why the discrepancy? Maybe the Trump committee is buying for maximum reach and O’Rourke’s committee is focused on driving website traffic and donation and event conversions.

A brief review of Trump campaign committee sponsored ads in the archive all of which feature strong calls-to-action coupled with “Sign Up”, “Learn More” and “Event” buttons does not support this hypothesis. Trump’s sheer volume and variety of ads could be the next most likely answer.

After scanning the Beto For Texas advertising in the Facebook political advertising archive, it is apparent they are optimizing for donation and event attendance conversions.

Focused on the Trump and O’Rourke findings specifically, our top takeaways in our first post about the NYU Facebook US political ad archive study are:

  • Two underdog candidates, Trump for President, and O’Rourke for Senate in deep-red Texas, invest significantly in Facebook advertising with sophisticated strategies to directly engage voters and succeeded. Facebook, without question, should be a substantial facet of your paid digital campaign.
  • Facebook is likely to give greater scrutiny to politicians’ pages and how they are categorized. Campaigns should ensure that candidate pages are setup correctly.
  • PACs should take added measures on social media platforms such as Facebook to demonstrate they are not coordinating efforts with a politician’s campaign organization. PAC Facebook ads linking to a candidates Facebook page suggest synchronization. PACs are better served linking to their own Facebook pages or websites.