Political Campaigns Don’t Work On Twitter. Digital Ad Execs Explain Why
Twitter kicked off the New Year by announcing it would relax a controversial ban on political ads and other promotions pushing specific causes. The move is only the latest effort by CEO Elon Musk to boost the platform’s struggling ad business — which took a hit last year after a number of advertisers left due to the chief’s volatile statements on the platform. Some companies have since returned.
But digital agencies who have worked on LA-based advocacy and political campaigns don’t think clients will make Twitter a major part of their ad strategy. Ad execs say the platform’s lack of specific microtargeting tools — along with the fact that it has a much smaller user base than ad giants Meta and Google — makes it less attractive than its competitors. Not to mention that since the 2019 ban went into effect, many clients have pivoted to other new ways of reaching voters, such as paying influencers on TikTok or ads on streaming platforms.
“Twitter has always been more of a niche product, very well suited to reaching people who are very engaged in the process and following the news closely,” said Jamie Patton, the director of digital agency Uplift — which counts the congressional campaign for Rep. Katie Porter (CA-45) as one of its clients, along with candidates for LA City Council and LA City Attorney.
In other words, Twitter users aren’t exactly the general public — a 2019 Pew poll found that Twitter’s audience is younger, more educated, higher income and more likely to identify with Democrats than the nation overall. Such an uneven sampling is why Twitter hype doesn’t always translate to real world hype. And why the platform can be a poor predictor of box office success, elections and the stock market.
“Twitter requires a specific and unique marketing approach to succeed,” said Erik Rose, a partner at public affairs agency EKA. “You can’t approach it the way you would your Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube marketing. And also can’t simply cross-promote your existing content.”
According to Patton, Twitter ads have primarily been effective in cases where a campaign needs access to a niche audience. “We ran political ads on the platform for years, more often ‘advocacy’ content designed to reach a more engaged audience, with very good results,” said Patton.
But such rough targeting paled in comparison to those offered by Google and Meta-owned platforms, which include Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Messenger. Patton says Twitter’s targeting capabilities are “pretty limited” for someone who wants to target a broad demographic. Which is to say, if your goal is to appeal to a swath of persuadable voters, you’re probably not going to spend your ad dollars on Twitter.
If Twitter does get the formula right—Patton said she’d like to see the company offer more one-on-one targeting, release more data on audience reach and provide more transparency on ad frequency—political campaigns could help boost its sinking ad revenue. According to digital ad analytics firm AdImpact, opponents and advocates of California’s sports betting ballot initiative Proposition 27 spent a combined $21.5 million on Facebook and Google ads in 2022. In fact, the initiative had the second largest political digital ad spend of 2022, just behind Georgia’s Senate campaigns. While such a campaign was only a drop in the bucket for Twitter’s competitors (Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said political ads account for less than one percent of Facebook’s revenue), it is revenue that Twitter can’t afford to lose.
That said, Twitter will have an even a tougher time breaking through, considering Apple’s 2021 privacy changes that allow iPhone users to opt out of tracking. Twitter, along with Meta, Snap and Pinterest have lost billions in market value since the change went to effect. Meanwhile, digital ads on TikTok, Amazon, streaming platforms and retail companies like Etsy and Walmart are using new approaches to ads (such as relying on purchasing history) and shaving away Facebook and Google’s share of the online ad business.
Still, Rose said he doesn’t think Twitter should try to imitate its competitors. He plans on advising his clients to focus on what they want from Twitter: It could merely serve as a less serious version of the TV and radio ad space, where campaigns can have fun and experiment with pop culture.
“Every platform can’t be everything to everyone,” Rose added. And while Twitter’s 259.4 million active users certainly aren’t everyone – its undeniably large role in public discourse means the political sphere can’t ignore it. But it’s unlikely that attention will translate to more money for Twitter considering posting is still free.
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