Apple, Haugen, Facebook’s Q4 “death” and what it means for political ads

Facebook’s most recent set of numbers look bad.

They showed users aren’t flocking to the platform in the same way as in previous years. Perhaps they’ve reached saturation point in most markets or users find themselves turned off by the reports following Frances Haugen’s whistleblowing. Alongside this, advertisers are finding it harder to target those users because Apple has made cross-device tracking harder. And Mark Zuckerberg has decided to direct billions of dollars of the company’s profits towards inventing a metaverse future. $500bn of the company’s value was lost.

Beyond this, both Facebook and Google have made policy changes to the way people can target political ads. Google made the change a while back, allowing them to be targeted solely on the basis of age, gender and geography. Facebook’s policy changed last month, to disallow some types of “political” interest-based targeting (everything else remains the same).

Does any of this this make much difference for the way campaigns will use digital political ads?

We don’t think so, at least in terms of where campaigns’ money goes.

First, there aren’t good alternatives. TikTok and Twitter don’t allow most political ads. Snapchat does, but isn’t that big and doesn’t reach the right demographics. Same for influencer advertising. Some US streaming services allow political ads, but it doesn’t happen anywhere else yet. Ads in games are a gimmick. No-one’s really in the “metaverse” right now.

Second, digital spending still provides a lot of bang for buck. Other forms of ads are more expensive they’re not necessarily more effective. It’s unlikely you’re going to see much by way of channel shift back to older types of ads, particularly when digital teams have spent 15 years arguing for a greater share of the campaign budget.

Third, the loss of targeting options and effectiveness makes no odds. In the absence of alternatives, you’re still more likely to reach a target voter on Facebook than anywhere else. Growth has stopped, but there are still millions and millions of active users there. Perhaps your pound doesn’t go as far as before, but that doesn’t make it inefficient compared to everything else. And for the most part, you can still target broad swathes of voters just as well (though perhaps it’s a touch harder to reach potential donors, volunteers or prospective members).

In our view then, all that’s left to do is to keep an eye whether the balance of spending moves from Facebook to Google (specifically YouTube). Over the past few years, for political ads, that balance has been around £10 spent on Facebook for every £1 with Google (the Conservatives a larger proportion on big blast YouTube ads at the last election, but the ratio stayed similar overall).

The question for a campaign therefore isn’t whether you’ll spend a pound on Facebook or Google, it’s how you’ll divide the pound between them. Despite everything, we think most of it will still go to Facebook.