As if previous cycles hadn’t prepared us, 2020 was truly the era of the Facebook president. Donald Trump this week approached $100 million spent on Facebook ads for his reelection, at a pace of roughly $5 million a week. While that might sound like a big seven-day outlay, consider that Joe Biden was outspending him for the week at $6.3 million.
More than ever, media consultants are battling it out for budget and relevance. But lost in the shuffle of mail, cable, and digital is what’s made social media platforms increasingly influential in our politics and society. If you can cut through the noise, social media is rich with meaningful engagement and less saturated with campaign contacts than calls and texts. These aren’t your vendor’s traditional static ads.
In this era of the social media presidency, one of the left’s largest grassroots digital advocacy groups decided to add a new dimension to its advocacy: investing in digital canvasses throughout the presidential battleground states. This election cycle, RootsAction hired us to develop the #VoteTrumpOut campaign, a grassroots effort to build progressive consensus and boost turnout against Trump, without endorsing Biden (“Vote Trump out in swing states; Protest Biden from Day 1”).
Direct voter contact and “deep canvassing” with open-ended questions result in better organizing outcomes than other forms of voter contact. With that in mind we developed a strategy that married engagement advertising with staff organizers and swing-state volunteer teams to reach voters one-to-one on Facebook. While COVID-19 has restricted and strained many traditional canvassing programs, reaching social media users is easier than ever.
The Adriel Hampton Group developed what we called Facebook Deep Canvassing as a practice on the Gayle McLaughlin for lieutenant governor campaign in California. The Bernie Sanders campaign used similar tactics to engage new supporters and volunteers in 2020.
Here’s how it worked for Roots Action: the organization used its 55,000-follower page to develop content for left-leaning voters who might consider sitting the election out, or voting third-party in a swing state. We then reached more than 1 million targeted swing-state Facebook users who shared our posts more than 2,000 times per day. And while the digital canvass drove more value from our ad dollars, the engagement and conversations with voters also drove down the cost per impression (CPI) and helped us reach more voters on a grassroots budget.
Here are some lessons for campaigns seeking to add digital canvassing and organizing to their programs:
1. Investing in regional organizers ensures you’re catching local trends as well as high-performing national themes and memes.
2. At the height of the presidential cycle, comments have really escalated — you want to use page bans and challenge commenters to stay on your message. Optimizing for shares and engaging the most active potential supporters is a direct route to a solid canvass.
3. Consider a click campaign optimized for engagement and shares to send voters to your landing page while also activating canvassing opportunities.
4. Use your own page and a matching audience. If you haven’t built out an audience, consider partnering with a publisher who’s already speaking to the community you hope to reach. Put advertising dollars behind your most popular organic posts. We use ActionSprout to quickly evaluate content and launch engagement ads.
5. A-B-T: Always Be Testing means prodigious amounts of content —100 or more posts a week across graphic design, video, and news curation gets you a handful of more viral posts to advertise.
6. Stacking content with long-running, quality memes and videos ensures that your campaign can keep reaching your target audience without repetition.
A successful digital canvassing program — this strategy obviously isn’t limited to Facebook — requires serious up-front investment in content, training, and testing. The cautionary tale of “domestic trolls” employed by an astroturf operation for Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA should encourage organizations and campaigns to be professional, transparent and to hire and train their own staff.
We also encourage organizations to treat these large digital programs as multi-purpose: comms, fundraising, and organizing all benefit from a well-run canvassing campaign. And who knows, maybe even a little digital David can have Goliath impact in this era of infinite social media ad campaigns.
Adriel Hampton is Chief Strategist at The Adriel Hampton Group and the only politician subject to fact-checking on Facebook. Dan Sherrell is a climate organizer and leads the #VoteTrumpOut campaign for RootsAction.org.