In spite of what you might think from just about every analysis of the 2016 presidential election, Facebook micro-targeting is not all bad. Micro-targeting has, in fact, been around a long time. Facebook just made it famous.
…Or maybe infamous.
Robert Mueller’s investigation is ongoing and speculation is building about collusion with Russia. No wonder the Facebook marketing ecosystem has started to feel tainted. However, Ignoring Facebook micro-targeting because of 2016 is a huge mistake. It has powerful uses not only for political campaigns but also for anyone that wants to speak directly to any constituency.
Facebook Micro-targeting is not, in and of itself, black hat
Digital marketing agencies have made Facebook a cornerstone of their strategies for a reason. It is enormously powerful. In the entrepreneurial world, the black hat tactics that get talked about are things like:
- Dark posts that do not show on your organization’s public timeline
- Blatantly purchasing followers from click farms
- Targeting users in third world countries purely to boost vanity metrics
Most of these strategies aren’t really anything to get up in arms about. At the end of the day, probably not very effective anyway. After all, if you aren’t collecting followers genuinely interested in your message, your Facebook page will have very low engagement. The algorithm will punish you for this and make it progressively harder for your content to be seen.
You see, the algorithm is quite smart. It makes the whole ecosystem self-correcting (or at least that is the goal).
Whether you are selling shake weights or climate change, there is nothing wrong with using Facebook to put your message in front of people that want to receive it.
Deliberately spreading information you know to be misleading and/or outright false? Clearly unethical in my book, but that alone does not require the manipulation of Facebook’s micro-targeting, re-targeting, or any other kind of targeting.
So, you see, it is the intention, not the tactics, that make a particular campaign ethical (or unethical).
Facebook Micro-Targeting Is Being Under-Utilized For Politics
With all of the scandal surrounding 2016, it may seem justified that these tactics are getting a bad reputation. In fact, outside of Trump’s campaign, it is hard to find any examples of campaigns embracing these tactics.
Take for example Revolution Messaging, a progressive political campaign agency. They position themselves as being high-tech and on the forefront of digital campaign tactics. After reading through every one of their published case studies, though, I found zero mentions of facebook micro-targeting campaigns.
One notable exception, however, was a small local marketing agency called StraightForward Media. They took the idea of micro-targeting as used by their corporate clients and applied it to help Sam Kooiker beat the incumbent Mayor of Rapid City, South Dakota. Aside from a brief write-up in The Guardian, these tactics are rarely written about outside of the context of the 2016 scandals, and that’s a crying shame.
The Devastating Effectiveness of Micro-targeting
As Straightforward Media explains, there are five main reasons for the power of Facebook micro-targeting:
- Reach niche constituencies. You would give a different speech if you knew the audience was active military versus low income parents, wouldn’t you? You can put out tailored messages to specific groups.
- It has better reach than any other broadcast or print media, and you know the audience is warmer to the particular message than the general public.
- They say that an advertisement has to be seen eight times before an average consumer will stop to think about the product being sold. The Facebook platform is much easier to deal with in this regard than broadcast media.
- The ability to target different groups with custom messaging, by definition, makes opposition research (on You!) much more difficult. You are paying for the ad to be shown to small business owners in Springfield aged 25-55, not political consultants in Jeff City, after all.
- Finally, it’s cheap! Facebook’s platform is made to help local small business owners as much as it is large national chains, and they want it to be much more competitive than traditional advertising channels.
As you can see, the Facebook micro-targeting is just as powerful for local elections as it is for business.
There’s Blackhat/Whitehat, Ethical/Unethical, and then there’s Legal/Illegal
You may have noticed my careful choice of words regarding the 2016 election. While I have my own theories about what really happened, investigations are ongoing. The public likely does not have complete information about everything, but speculation is rampant.
I am greatly worried about drastic measures that may be by Facebook. I do hope that appropriate measures to counterbalance foreign influence in the elections of a nation (ANY nation, not just the U.S.) are found, no overcorrection.
There is good, positive, potential for Facebook micro-targeting. It could be used to improve public debate in numerous ways. If more people find honest and ethical applications of the system, the company is less likely to take an extreme measure like shutting the whole thing down. Not that they would ever do that, though, as it would severely cut into their own revenue.
As debate rages, the 2018 elections inch closer. Will it be a replay of 2016? Or will we see these systems used more responsibly and ethically this time?
One thing is for sure: either way, it will be merely a testing ground for 2020.