Earlier this month, an internal memo from Facebook's former mobile ads chief Andrew Bosworth was leaked to The New York Times, in which Bosworth discussed the platform's role in the 2016 US Presidential Election.
In the memo, Bosworth largely dismissed the various controversies around Cambridge Analytica, fake news, Russian interference, etc. Instead, Bosworth attributed Donald Trump's 2016 election victory to one thing:
"So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks.[...] He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period."
High praise, from the key person who would know about Facebook ad performance.
So what did the Trump campaign do that was so spectacular, what's the key trick that Trump's team uses to maximize Facebook ads.
This week, we've been given a glimpse into Trump's Facebook ads machine via a report conducted by The Guardian, which found that "over the course of 2019, the Trump campaign spent nearly $20m on more than 218,000 different Facebook ads".
The Guardian's full report is essential reading for anyone interested in Facebook ad strategies, but here are some of the highlights which the report identifies as key elements of the Trump Facebook ad blitz.
First off, according to Trump's current campaign chief, Brad Parscale - who was also in charge of Trump's digital campaign in 2016 - their approach to Facebook ads is primarily focused on collecting audience info.
"The campaign is all about data collection - if we touch you digitally, we want to know who you are and how you think and get you into our databases so that we can model off it and relearn and understand what’s happening.”
Essentially, gathering email addresses, and building its own data banks, is essential to its effort.
To do this, the Trump campaign runs a lot of Facebook ads which refer users to interactive polls, which also ask them to enter their email address.
This ad, and the many variations of it (The Guardian says that they ran more than 3,500 variations of the same ad) was the best performing among Trump's campaign push over the last year.
When a user taps on the 'Sign Up' CTA button, they're taken to this landing page, which asks for an email address at the bottom of the basic survey.
Through this, the Trump campaign has been able to collect millions of names, location markers and email addresses, which it can then use to add into its data banks for future ad targeting and email call-outs, independent of Facebook campaigns.
And as you might expect, many of the Trump ads also use divisive, sensitive topics, which spark furious debate on social platforms, and arguably lead to more intense societal divides.
As per The Guardian:
"Ads about immigration use especially dark rhetoric and imagery, stoking fear of “caravan after caravan” of migrants or urging voters to vote yes or no on whether to “deport illegals”. An ad that ran after the impeachment inquiry began used images of Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro and members of the fringe group the Revolutionary Communist party burning an American flag to suggest that Democratic candidates were “destroying American values”. “Only one man can stop this chaos,” the ad announces, before Trump appears under blue skies."
These types of ads play into people's fears, in order to generate more support for the Trump campaign, while the added interactive element also prompts engagement, and action, by pushing Facebook users to have their say, and subsequently add their thoughts and join the broader movement.
These types of ads fuel a sense of tribalism, a 'with us or against us' push, which, again, stokes divides, but ultimately helps to spread the campaign's key messaging. If you're with us, you're voting for Trump. If you're against us, you're against national security.
It's easy to see why such an approach is effective on Facebook.
Aside from this, The Guardian's analysis also shows that the campaign uses many basic Facebook ad approaches, including BuzzFeed style quizzes (which require email and/or phone number sign-up) and even competitions to win Trump campaign merchandise, all designed to gather personal information to expand the campaigns reach.
It's worth taking a look at the full report - it includes a range of interesting insights and considerations which provide insight into the Trump campaigns complex, Facebook-focussed strategy, and may provide additional pointers as to what works best on the platform, which could add to your own Facebook ad understanding.
Will Facebook ads be the deciding factor in 2020? It's impossible to predict - but it's also impossible to deny the potential reach and impact of Facebook in influencing voter action.
There's clearly a reason why the Trump campaign spent $20 million on Facebook ads over the last year.