Viral Political Ads May Not Be As Persuasive As You Think

For politicians campaigning on social media, focusing too much on shares and likes might be a mistake.

When a political ad goes viral on Facebook, conventional wisdom holds that it was a success. After all, the Golden Rule of advertising in the digital age is simple: Engagement is good. It’s good for Facebook too. The more time users spend watching, commenting, clicking, and sharing on its platform, the more money the company makes. Little wonder, then, that Facebook allows advertisers to test which ads get the most engagement with a single click.

That model works just fine when you’re trying to get people to donate or volunteer for a cause. It’s easy enough to see whether all those impressions translate into more donations and sign-ups. These types of ads are known as direct-response ads, because they urge the target to take some action.

The calculus changes when it comes to persuasion ads, which aim to build support for a certain candidate or issue among people who haven’t made up their minds yet. The key to persuasion is not simply engaging the biggest audience but successfully moving the right one. Still, lots of political advertisers, including campaigns and advocacy groups, use engagement as a proxy for persuasion. That’s particularly true when they don’t have the means for more in-depth poll testing. Sometimes we in the press also conflate the two, believing that virality and persuasiveness are somehow synonymous.

But is that true? Or, in the age of echo chambers and filter bubbles, is high engagement really just a sign that you’re preaching to the converted?

That’s the question a group of progressive digital strategists working out of Harmony Labs, a nonprofit dedicated to studying media influence, set out to answer in a series of recent tests. The study wasn’t peer-reviewed, and it was conducted largely for Harmony Labs’ internal purposes. But its findings may still raise alarm bells for political groups that have gone all in on Facebook after witnessing Donald Trump’s success there during the 2016 presidential election. Not only did the group find zero correlation between engagement and persuasion; in some cases, the most engaging videos persuaded people in the wrong direction.

“The thing the platforms are driving you to is increasing their revenue, but it doesn’t necessarily persuade the people that need to be persuaded,” says Nathaniel Lubin, former White House digital director under President Barack Obama. Lubin designed the experiments along with Peter Koechley, cofounder of UpWorthy, whose founding mission was to make viral content promoting political and social issues.

Through Harmony Labs, Lubin and Koechley recently launched a project geared toward sourcing and creating left-leaning advocacy content that’s both engaging and persuasive. They call it the Meme Factory. To test this theory about persuasion, the Meme Factory team created a series of 18 videos covering a range of key progressive issues, from opposition to the GOP tax bill to the repeal of DACA, the Obama-era program that protected certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children from deportation. The videos were conceived and recorded just as they might be within a cash-strapped political organization, with minimal production requirements and quick turnarounds.

For each political issue, they created several videos, some preachy and heartrending, others funny and filled with stats. Then they set the videos loose on Facebook, targeting them as ads to key audiences. The…

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Peter Bordes

Exec Chairman & Founder at oneQube
Exec Chairman & Founder of oneQube the leading audience development automation platfrom. Entrepreneur, top 100 most influential angel investors in social media who loves digital innovation, social media marketing. Adventure travel and fishing junkie.
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