Twitter’s Ban on Political Ads Is No Big Deal, Marketers Say

But issue-based advertisers could feel the loss

illustration of business man and woman shrugging surrounded by twitter logos
Twitter's decision doesn't carry the sting that would happen if other platforms had made the same move.
Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Getty Images, Twitter

When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced—in a series of tweets, naturally—that the platform would no longer accept political ad dollars in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential race, the responses were mixed.

Advocates and some Democratic candidates lauded Twitter’s decision that, as Dorsey put it, the reach of political messages should be “earned” rather than bought. Others, like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg, argued that it’s not within the wheelhouse of private companies to “censor politicians and the news.”

The only people shrugging off Twitter’s decision, it appears, are political advertisers themselves.

“Advertisers will have to adjust, but it’s not a fatal blow,” said Reid Vineis, president of digital at the election- and advocacy-focused agency Majority Strategies. “Frankly, I just don’t think Twitter was earning that much political ad spend as the other major platforms—like Facebook and Google—to begin with.”

A similarly blasé response could be heard from digital advertisers behind presidential campaigns. One official behind Trump’s 2020 campaign was quoted in Reuters saying that he’d spent a mere $6,000 this campaign season promoting the candidate’s account, compared to the $21.3 million on Facebook since May 2018.

If political ads make up less than 1% of the company’s total predicted ad revenue next year, as Zuckerberg has often said, then, according to Vineis, that percentage is even smaller for Twitter—a company that, especially as of late, has been reported falling short of advertisers’—and Wall Street’s—expectations.

Twitter ads vs. organic engagement

Meanwhile, Richie Alicea, digital director behind Republican candidate Joe Walsh’s campaign, told Adweek that the return on advertising on Twitter, in his experience, has been “negligible”—especially when candidates can leverage their already-existing Twitter audiences through organic engagement, rather than paid reach.

“Political advertising is a pot of gold for the media business; campaigns will spend on anything and everything which has an audience and can demonstrate a return in terms of donations,” said Jeff Greenfield, chief attribution officer of the cloud-based data company C3 Metrics.

As he explained, Twitter might have the audience, but performance simply wasn’t there. Greenfield pointed out that Twitter generated less than $3 million during the 2018 midterm elections, likely due to the platform’s inability to demonstrate a return on investment for political campaigners, he said.

In a lot of ways, according to Vineis, this is because of the nature of the platform: Twitter is never where a candidate would go to “convince a voter,” he said—especially not with the 280-character constraint.

“Twitter is more of the place where you’re a man on the corner of the street, kind of shouting up at the sky,” he explained. Meanwhile, a platform like Facebook that’s more collaborative and built on “conversations” with people you know, is better suited for the kind of interaction a citizen might want to have with an elected official, Greenfield said.

Targeting on Twitter is problematic

Meanwhile, attempts to target potential voters fell equally flat for marketers like Vineis. Twitter has, historically, offered the ability to target based on basic political affiliations, and some of those political affiliations were gleaned from the accounts a particular account followed.

But as Vineis pointed out, an account that follows Elizabeth Warren might simply do it because she’s newsworthy—not because the user supports the Democratic candidate’s platform.

Another tricky thing about targeting on Twitter, Vineis added, is the lack of confidence. On other platforms like Facebook, political advertisers can upload a voter file list–names and addresses—that needed to be reached—and have the confidence that someone’s real name and address were affiliated with a particular Facebook profile.

That peace of mind doesn’t come with Twitter, which is built with anonymity at its core.

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