By Joseph Sorrentino
At first blush, it appears Twitter opted for a full exit from the contentious and very public debate around the intermingling of political speech and advertising. But let’s be honest, we (and Twitter) would be fooling ourselves to think this isn’t just the beginning of a long and rocky road of change in how political and issue-focused campaigns interact with modern technologies. While the decision to end political advertising on Twitter may provide a short-term PR boost, it hasn’t solved the awkward position that social platforms find themselves in: arbiters of what’s political. And at a time where everything from professional football to the weather is polarized and politicized, that will be an issue they and the other beleaguered platforms continue to contend with.
Despite the struggle that remains, and the recent attention, Twitter has never been an indispensable advertising platform for political or issue-focused campaigns. And so, with good reason, all eyes now turn to Facebook and Google. Will they take similar steps to limit the type of ads they run? Should they follow Twitter’s lead, the decision could alter the foundation of digital campaigning and online organizing as we know it. And on the eve of a presidential campaign year where hundreds of millions of dollars in ads will be spent, speculation and scrutiny will only intensify.
Facebook’s recent spate of controversy around not fact-checking political ads has them on the defensive. And now, with Twitter’s announcement, we see Mark Zuckerberg standing by Facebook’s position on ad-transparency, stating, “Google, YouTube and most internet platforms run these same ads, most cable networks run these same ads, and of course national broadcasters are required by law to run them by FCC regulations…Would we really block ads for important political issues like climate change or women’s empowerment?”
Google, on the other hand, has not publicly stated any policies on misleading political messaging and seems content to remain quiet and in the shadow of Zuckerberg’s escalating fight for neutrality. Though it’s difficult to predict how this plays out, it seems unlikely that Facebook and Google will maintain the status quo given the mounting pressure and scrutiny from all sides — Washington, celebrities, the media, and the general public. Just this week, Axios reported that both Facebook and Google are weighing changes to their political ad policies.
While there is reason to believe that they will take incremental steps to get it right — more rigorous fact-checking, increased transparency measures, restrictions on targeting — it is more likely we’ll continue to witness a disruptive retreat from the space altogether, at least in the short term. Political and issue-focused ads represent a small fraction of Facebook and Google’s multi-billion dollar ad businesses. The disproportionately-sized financial headache that political ads produce simply may not be worth it over the long haul, especially if it impedes forward movement in other growth areas. This appears to only be going in one direction, with Twitter currently out in front of the pack.
Amidst the ongoing debate and suspense of what comes next, how should political marketers — who have been at the whim of the tech platforms and their changing newsfeed algorithms for years — confront this shifting landscape? We should continue to leverage the best tools at our disposal, and that still includes Facebook and Google (and Twitter for another few weeks). But, we also have to be prepared to pivot and adapt to the changing circumstances, holding constant our focus to meet audiences where they are with content that is engaging and meaningful.
As the major platforms retreat, new avenues for engagement reveal themselves. Less saturated social platforms such as Reddit and Snapchat, video streaming and OTT platforms like Hulu and Roku, the explosive growth of podcast sponsorships, new custom and native partnerships with trusted publishers are available and at our fingertips. Advertisers should get ahead by familiarizing themselves with these platforms, generating creative and targeting findings, and leaning into the new and innovative creative executions. And as the platform data we have relied on to micro-target voters becomes restricted, the collection of first party data like email, coupled with sophisticated audience modeling, will be needed even more to gain an edge.
It has never been more critical to approach communications challenges with holistic, channel-agnostic thinking, and to counter what has become a reflexive and unhealthy dependency on a few platforms with bespoke and innovative media plans that deliver results. When we plan a seamless integration of media and message, with a specific cohort of individuals in mind, we often discover there is a large and diverse canvas of media opportunities available to facilitate connections, inform an electorate, and enrich people’s lives. The digital space will continue to evolve and innovate, as it always has, and we’ll find new ways to communicate with audiences.