Here is the central tenet of Facebook’s business: If lots of people click on, comment on, or share an ad, Facebook charges that advertiser less money to reach people. The platform is a brawl for user attention, and Facebook sees a more engaging ad as a better ad, which should be shown to more users.
This has been true for years. No one inside or outside Facebook has ever hidden this fact. All the dynamics of the News Feed — most classed under the rubric of “clickbait” — also exist in paid advertising, but success (or failure) is denominated in dollars.
And yet, in the context of the 2016 Presidential Election, this way of auctioning advertising — originally developed by Google and normalized in the pre-Trump age — can seem strange, unfair, and possibly even against the rules that govern election advertising.
In a new essay at Wired, the former Facebook advertising staffer Antonio García Martínez lays out what is undoubtedly true: Trump’s ads had far higher engagement rates, which meant he paid less to reach a given number of people.
“A canny marketer with really engaging (or outraging) content can goose their effective purchasing power at the ads auction, piggybacking on Facebook’s estimation of their clickbaitiness to win many more auctions (for the same or less money) than an unengaging competitor,” García Martínez writes.
Trump, of course, was the canny marketer, while Clinton’s team was the unengaging competitor. While most everyone covering the digital portion of the election has known this, the logical conclusion that follows can still feel startling.
“During the run-up to the election, the Trump and Clinton campaigns bid ruthlessly for the same online real estate in front of the same swing-state voters. But because Trump used provocative content to stoke social-media buzz, and he was better able to drive likes, comments, and shares than Clinton, his bids received a boost from Facebook’s click model, effectively winning him more media for less money,” García Martínez continues. “In essence, Clinton was paying Manhattan prices for the square footage on your smartphone’s screen, while Trump was paying Detroit prices. Facebook users in swing states who felt Trump had taken over their news feeds may not have been hallucinating.”
After the article was published, one of Trump’s campaign staffers, Brad Parscale, posted a link to it and tweeted a chest-pounding follow-up. “I bet we were 100x to 200x [Clinton],” he wrote. “We had CPMs [cost per thousand impressions] that were pennies in some cases. This is why @realDonaldTrump was a perfect candidate for Facebook.” [Continue reading…]
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