The New Rules for Paid Ads on Social Media — and How They Impact Nonprofits

Social media platforms are changing how they regulate political and issue ads. Follow these guidelines to ensure your organization maximizes its impact.

January 20th Articles 8 min read
Google Changes Website

By Eric Ressler

In the final quarter of 2019, as the nation started gearing up for the 2020 presidential election, major social media platforms made news for their policies related to paid political advertising. It all started when Facebook came under fire for refusing to fact-check paid political ads — even those containing clear falsehoods. In response, Twitter announced that it would ban all political ads from its platform and place limitations on issue ads as well. Google followed suit with its own set of restrictions. (Facebook, meanwhile, most recently stated that it is looking at ways to “refine” its approach to political ads.)

This flurry of policy refinements represents an attempt (on the part of Twitter and Google, at least) to level the playing field in political advertising. In many ways, these changes are a step in the right direction in terms of protecting the democratic process.

Unfortunately, though, the new policies will likely have unintended consequences on social impact organizations. After all, nonprofits rely on digital advertising to raise awareness about the issues they champion. And the nature of many organizations’ work means that their concerns often verge on the political.

So what does this mean for nonprofits? In this article, we take a look at the major social networks’ current policies on political and issue ads and offer some suggestions for how to deal.

Political and Issue Ads: The New Rules on Social Media

Following is a roundup of Twitter, Google, and Facebook’s current rules pertaining to political and issue ads. These policies are likely to remain in flux, so be sure to check each platform’s policy pages before finalizing your nonprofit’s communications strategy.

Note that many of the new restrictions relate to microtargeting. Microtargeting is the practice of tailoring a marketing audience based on a series of factors, such as location, gender, stated interests, public records, and online activity.

Twitter

In October 2019, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced a wholesale ban on targeted political ads — and, by extension, issue ads. As he explained in a series of tweets, “We considered stopping only candidate ads, but issue ads present a way to circumvent. Additionally, it isn’t fair for everyone but candidates to buy ads for issues they want to push. So we're stopping these too.”

However, by the time Twitter released the specifics of its new policy the following month, it had softened its stance on issue ads. Twitter’s current policy now allows issue ads, such as those focused on climate change, so long as they don’t connect the issues to specific candidates, legislation, or regulatory positions. For example, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit could post an ad related to the scarcity of affordable housing as long as it didn’t also promote a specific policy or candidate in connection with the issue.

The rub? Twitter placed more stringent restrictions on microtargeting for issue ads. They did this to prevent the ads from being deployed at a level of granularity that promotes information silos and undermines accountability. In the U.S., issue ads can be targeted at the state level on Twitter but not the zip code level. Additionally, you can’t use certain keywords or users’ political affiliation to narrow down an ad’s target audiences.

Facebook and Instagram

To date, these co-owned platforms still permit political and issue ads with relatively few restrictions, including restrictions on microtargeting. In addition, Facebook has reiterated that it won’t fact-check political ads, citing first amendment rights. However, Facebook users must now go through an authorization process in order to post paid political and issue ads. As a subsidiary of Facebook, Instagram’s policies are in line with those of its parent company.

Google and YouTube

Google (and its subsidiary, YouTube) recently updated its policy regarding political ads. Targeting for these ads is now limited to geographic location (at the zip code level), age, and gender. At the same time, the platform still allows contextual targeting. For example, political advertisers may place a display ad about campaign finance reform on pages that serve up related content.

However, the new rules no longer allow political ads to target “affinity audiences,” or groups of people with specific, related interests that may make them more receptive to a particular political ad. In addition, political advertisers can no longer upload their own lists of contacts to be targeted in ads. Finally, Google placed a new restriction on “remarketing,” or the process of serving ads to people based on specific actions they have already taken (such as visiting a particular website).

Restrictions on Issue Ads: The Effect on Social Impact Organizations

Microtargeting is the backbone of advocacy marketing. It allows grassroots organizations to quickly and accurately isolate the individuals who are most likely to become ardent supporters. But as political and issue ads are further restricted, grassroots organizations may lose the ability to microtarget audiences effectively.

Of course, most nonprofits’ work isn’t directly tied to specific political campaigns, parties, or legislative initiatives. But the ads they run often do pertain to “issues” as defined by the social media platforms. For example, Facebook’s list of “issues” includes civil and social rights, the economy, the environment, immigration, health, and more.

At the same time, the new policies still leave room for interpretation in terms of what exactly constitutes a political or issue ad. That definition is almost certain to evolve as the main platforms accept or decline ads based on their individual vetting processes.

Regardless, restrictions on microtargeting for issue ads will impact nonprofits and advocacy groups of all stripes. These groups will need to pony up more money in order to spread the same messages to larger, less refined audiences. Which means higher costs and reduced impact all around.

Some organizations may choose to simply shift more of their spend to Facebook, where fewer restrictions mean a smaller budget can go further. But depending on your audience, Facebook may not be the most effective channel for your organization. And some organizations may feel an ethical obligation not to shunt more money to Facebook given its stance on political ads.

The upshot? If your social impact organization has historically put all its eggs in one (or two) communications baskets, now is the time to diversify.

Diversifying Your Nonprofit’s Communication Strategy

There’s no one-size-fits-all plan when it comes to diversifying your organization’s communication strategy. Each organization should consider its unique positioning and audiences before crafting a set of tactics tailored to maximize impact. Consider the following strategies as you seek to expand your communications strategy beyond the major search and social platforms.

  • Invest in your email marketing program. In terms of conversions, email marketing is usually the most effective marketing channel. Of course, many organizations use social media marketing to build their email lists. Continue to do that, but plan to shift more of your resources to email. In this context, you can continue to freely communicate with your list in the ways you deem most effective. Just remember to follow email marketing best practices as you nurture and grow your list.
  • Get savvy about how you write paid ads. Paid social media ads will continue to be a part of your communications strategy. But you’ll need to get savvy about how to write ads that meet (or side-step) the new requirements. For example, simple awareness-building may be more acceptable than an ad that includes a petition.
  • Go deep on owned and earned media. Invest in creating interesting, educational, and informative content with clear calls to action. Publish this content on your website and social channels (in other words, your “owned” media). This content can also be used to fuel high-value email communications. At the same time, consider putting more effort into garnering earned media. Earned media are unpaid mentions from third-party news outlets, websites, and social pages. In the case of both owned and earned media, you commit to organically spreading your organization’s message.
  • Boots-on-the-ground awareness campaigns. Boots-on-the-ground awareness campaigns may make sense for your organization, particularly if your work involves issues of local relevance. These campaigns may make use of tactics like signage, in-person petitioning, street theater and guerilla marketing. With these approaches, your team brings your story to the streets in a live way that allows people to engage with your brand. It also often leads to earned media attention that can help spread the word to an even larger audience. Boots-on-the-ground tactics can be extremely effective. In a world where digital communications are the default, old-school, analog approaches can actually be more meaningful. (Compare a hand-written thank you note to an email, for example.) On the other hand, analog approaches often take more people power and resources to execute. Because of this, you must think strategically about what makes the most sense to maximize your organization’s impact.
  • Engage in civil disobedience. Depending on the nature of your work, consider engaging in civil disobedience to further your impact and gather eyes to your cause. Groups like Indivisible and Extinction Rebellion have recently put out playbooks for civil disobedience that local chapters can use in their areas of outreach. This open-source, decentralized approach seems to have rapid adoption when it has resonance. The only downside is that it allows your brand to be controlled by loosely linked groups.
  • Pursue relationship-oriented grassroots outreach and campaigning. Build and foster personal connections in order to spread your message and achieve your goals. For example, train your team to start conversations with people in their own personal networks to organically expand your organization’s message. Reach out to people in forums, or start your own forum with incentive campaigns to join the discussion. Consider developing campaigns that include direct outreach. For example, charity: water allows individuals (76,000 of them so far) to build their own campaigns and do their own outreach to raise money for charity: water’s clean water initiatives.

As policies related to paid political and issue ads change, nonprofits must stay on their toes. That means making smart decisions about how best to engage their audiences. The good news? These changes represent an opportunity to think creatively and expand your organization’s communications toolkit. Do it well, and you’ll reach new audiences and drive impact, too.

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