In the 2020 election cycle, the Democratic Governors Association spent roughly 75% of its advertising budget on Facebook, taking advantage of the app’s ubiquity and its ability to deliver hyper-targeted ads to potential voters.
For the 2022 midterm elections, which include many key gubernatorial contests and will determine control of the House and Senate, the group has steered much of its money elsewhere. Ahead of Election Day on Nov. 8, just half of its spending is taking place on Facebook.
“I think the throughline that you’ll see overall is Facebook has become a much less effective platform over the past two years,” said Laura Carlson, digital director of the Democratic Governors Association.
Facebook has been mired in political controversy for over a half decade, since the platform was abused during the 2016 election campaign by foreign actors spreading disinformation. The 2020 season wasn’t much better, and ultimately led to Facebook’s banning of ex-President Donald Trump from the app following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.
But none of that explains why political campaigns have been turning away from Facebook. Rather, Carlson said the changes that Apple made to iOS last year, which limited the targeting capabilities for advertisers, have made Facebook a less valuable tool for disseminating political messages to the correct audience.
“I think the real culprit that you see is the privacy changes on the iPhone,” Carlson said. She said her organization is pushing the other half of its $10 million budget to areas like traditional email and text campaigns as well as newer platforms like connected TV and streaming services.
The retreat from Facebook by political advertisers mirrors the broader challenge the company faces now that brands can no longer rely on key pieces of user data to promote their products and services. Facebook parent Meta just reported its second straight quarter of declining revenue and said another decline is coming in the fourth quarter. The stock has lost 72% of its value year to date and closed on Monday at its lowest point since early 2016.
Political ads have always been a small part of Facebook’s overall business. An analysis by CNBC ahead of the 2020 election, based on data from Facebook’s ad library and the Center for Responsive Politics, showed that at least 3% of the company’s estimated revenue for the third quarter of that year was from politicians and campaigns.
For many campaigns, Facebook had become the go-to spot for ads because of the reach and the ability to both distribute messages and raise money from wide swaths of people. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., berated fellow Democratic nominees after the 2020 election, telling The New York Times that the party lost seats in Congress because candidates didn’t spend enough on Facebook.
The math has since changed.
Annie Levene, a partner for the democratic advertising firm Rising Tide Interactive, said her organization has slashed its Facebook budget for the midterms compared to the last cycle from around 10% to between 3% and 5%.
Levene said Facebook is still useful for running relatively simple fundraising ads where it’s easy to track return on investment. But for the more complicated persuasion ads, Levene said Facebook doesn’t offer a lot of value since the iOS change.
“We have to do what is best for our clients,” Levene said. She said she’ll use Facebook for raising money, because “it would be sort of malpractice to say here’s a channel that we could be really successful for you on fundraising, but we’re not going to do it.”
Ethan Eilon, the president of digital marketing firm IMGE, which works with Republicans, said the Apple iOS update is a major reason his group is “investing considerably less in Facebook advertising compared to other platforms and channels than we were last cycle.”
However, it’s not just about Apple. Advertisers told CNBC that they also learned an important lesson from a turbulent 2020 cycle, when platforms including Facebook banned new political ads from running the week before the election. Facebook said its ban, announced about two months before Election Day, was intended to “connect people with authoritative information” and to “fight misinformation.”
‘A big shake-up’
Grace Briscoe, senior vice president at marketing technology firm Basis Technologies, said the short notice was particularly concerning in tight races like the Georgia Senate runoff elections in January 2021.
“That was a big shake-up, I think, in a lot of our clients’ minds of being overly reliant on a platform that might sort of pull the rug out from under you,” Briscoe said. “That’s not helping with that sort of trust level between the political advertisers for sure and the platforms.”
Basis, whose technology is used by political campaigns, saw a 1,500% increase in spending on connected TV devices in the first half of 2022 compared to the first half of 2020, Briscoe said. That’s especially significant considering there’s no presidential contest this cycle, which typically means lower turnout.
Two years ago, streaming platforms made up a small share of overall political ad spending, though many experts predicted it would grow over time. The pandemic accelerated that trend since so many consumers turned to streaming platforms while stuck at home, and content for cord-cutters proliferated.
Total ad spending on connected TV platforms climbed 57% in 2021 to $15.2 billion and is expected to jump another 39% this year to $21.2 billion, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Ad tracking firm AdImpact projected that of the $9.7 billion spent on political ads this cycle, $1.4 billion would go to connected TVs.
John Padua, vice president of media buying at Trilogy Interactive, said some of his agency’s spending that had been on Facebook has been redirected toward streaming.
That last week of ads before an election is so important, Padua said, because you’re “trying to find those last five, 10 thousand votes that could make the biggest difference in a congressional election, particularly in a potential wave year.”
He added that you get a last chance to respond to a “bit of polling that tells us that we need to shore up a certain demographic or people who have certain issues.”
Padua, whose agency has worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga, said Trilogy is still going to do last-minute ads, but “we’re going to just put that message out on different platforms, and Facebook is just going to be cut out of buying.”
Facebook parent company Meta declined to comment for this story.
Advertisers stressed that spending on Facebook and other social platforms is still valuable and an important part of the overall mix. Political groups and lawmakers spent around $84 million on Facebook ads during the third quarter of 2022, with around $58 million spent on direct response advertising, according to Ad Impact.
But every source who spoke on the topic to CNBC said Facebook is not as effective as in past cycles, leading many to search out other options like streaming.
Smart TVs provide a medium that’s already quite familiar to political advertisers: television. Advertisers said that TV ads tend to be more about persuasion and telling a story than ads on Facebook.
Interest in connected TV and over-the-top platforms has “skyrocketed” since the 2020 presidential elections, said Joe Marino, the head of client success at Madhive, which helps companies run and manage ad campaigns across streaming services. “Going into this cycle now, streaming is literally a part of every single buy, and it’s a big part of it,” Marino said.
He added that the platforms have matured dramatically and have made it much simpler to run campaigns than in the past, approaching Facebook-like ease.
“The beauty in digital is that budgets can be fluid,” Marino said, contrasting streaming with traditional linear television. “You can cancel them on a dime and move them on a dime.”
Briscoe said the targeting has gotten much better as well. Streaming services now have the type of location and behavioral click-through data that advertisers highly value in efficiently getting their message out.
“It is actually much easier for campaigns to scale connected TV, even down to like a state legislative district, which was not possible two years ago even,” Briscoe said. “Two years ago, we were excited if a connected-TV campaign could scale in a congressional district. Now, you’re getting much more narrow.”
Roku CEO Anthony Wood said after his company’s second-quarter earnings report in July that “political is a good vertical for us, a scenario that’s growing” even though it was “not a huge business” at the time. Roku and Amazon lead the U.S. market for streaming devices.
Just as new ad avenues are popping up, a persisting issue for Facebook, advertisers say, is that the restrictions the company put on political campaigns in 2020 haven’t been effective at slowing the spread of misinformation.
Hate speech and conspiracy theories have continued to run rampant on Facebook, despite community guidelines that ban such behavior. But much of that content comes from people who post it for free, rather than paid placements.
“I don’t think the problem on these platforms, whether it’s Facebook or Google, was ever advertising,” said Patrick McHugh, a partner at Gambit Strategies, which focuses on online mobilization for Democratic causes and candidates. He called Facebook’s policies “completely performative.”
“They’ve utilized political advertising as sort of the facade that they then use to put restrictions on because they like to claim that fixes the problem,” McHugh added. “The truth is, if they really did fix the actual problem, that is rooted in their algorithm that will cost them money.”
It doesn’t help that Facebook has turned into a punching bag on Capitol Hill by many of the same politicians who relied on the site for prior campaigning.
Facebook executives have been called to Washington numerous times in recent years to testify about the legal liability that protects social media, antitrust issues facing Big Tech and, most recently, the whistleblower revelations last year about the company’s unwillingness to make changes despite knowing some of the content it hosts is harming users.
Marino said that during past crises advertisers have shifted budgets away from Facebook, only to come back when the temperature cooled. That occurred after the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018, which was explosive at the time and eventually led the company to settle a lawsuit. Facebook’s business momentum quickly recovered, however.
“If you see any press about Facebook that’s negative, generally budgets flow out of that really quickly into other channels,” Marino said. “They’ll flow back once people pretend to forget.”
This cycle has a distinctly different tone, though. So many changes have taken place with Facebook’s business and the broad ad ecosystem that advertisers are suggesting the latest shift away to other platforms seems more permanent.
Republican political consultant Luke Thompson said that while Facebook is still “essential for fundraising and volunteer organizing,” it no longer has the tools necessary to attract broader campaigns.
Apple’s crackdown has indeed diminished Facebook’s position in political advertising. But Thompson said it started with the “reputational damage from the Cambridge Analytica scandal,” which he described as a cynical effort by lawmakers to try and convince the public of election interference.
“Since then, the platform has become much less open, more rigid, and less willing to share outcome data,” Thompson said.