What has changed
Both Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to let you see the ads any organization is running.
On June 28 Facebook announced that it is making key changes that allow any user to be able to view any ads that are currently active, for any page. Additionally, users can now see any changes that have been made to that page such as page creation date and changes to the page name. The official statement closes with the line “We’ll be adding more Page information in the coming weeks”.
Meanwhile, Twitter unveiled their Ads Transparency Center that was initially announced back in October. Again this gives users and marketers the ability to see any ads currently being run by any page. And while ad targeting isn’t displayed to users, Twitter is letting us see retweets and likes for any given post.
Why has this happened?
This is in response to increasing pressure being put on social networks to be more responsible for the ads served on their platform. One of the issues that drew particular attention to the issue was interference in the US presidential election by Russian companies using bots and adverts on Facebook and Twitter.
Where can you find this information?
For Facebook, just search for any page that you’d like to review, head down to the bottom of the vertical navigation in the left sidebar and you’ll see “Info and ads”. In the middle column of the page, you will now see all active ads for a page (we used our friends over at Moz for our example below). It is important to note that you can’t see historical or paused ads. By using the location drop down located just above the ads, we now have the ability to see which regions a page is targetting.
In some instances, you will see major brands appearing to run no ads at all. Take a look at Coca Cola’s Facebook page. It’s worth checking down in the bottom right, where Facebook is highlighting related pages that are running ad campaigns. To display the ads make sure you select a country from the dropdown menu once you’ve clicked through to the page.
To access this information over on Twitter, head to https://ads.twitter.com/transparency and use the Search advertisers function in the top right.
A good one to get you started is to search for “Facebook” where you’ll see they are currently running ads on Twitter. Weirdly, given the size of the Facebook advertising platform, we don’t see Twitter running ads over on Facebook.
What we found
With the excitement of being able to see ads that are currently live for major brands, political figures, charities and basically anyone, our consulting team couldn’t resist spending an hour digging around social media accounts. Here are some of the more interesting ones that we found:
Our immediate attention was drawn to US politics, and a quick review of the primary accounts linked to Donald Trump. Despite a lack of paid sponsorship on Twitter (here and here), we found the dig into his Facebook page relatively interesting. While we get an insight to his campaign messaging, we would love to have targeting layered over the top of this and to be completely useful and interesting the ability to see past and archived ads.. Maybe this will come soon.
One feature that Facebook is now enforced in the US is political content now has to declare who has paid for the ad alongside archiving ads with political content.
For our UK audience here’s what the two major parties have been up to: Labour have been running way more ads (or ad variations) than the Conservatives. As of writing the UK hasn’t implemented the same guidelines as the US yet regarding flagging who has sponsored the posts.
We found nothing massively surprising in this vertical. Apple is focusing their advertising heavily on the European and Asian market and during our quick poke around at present doesn’t seem to be running ads from their main Facebook page, instead relying on Twitter for their ads.
Google is currently focusing their ads on promoting their Google Assistant and leveraging celebrity influencers in the campaigns including David Walliams, John Boyega and Katrina Johnson Thompson.
The final vertical we took a quick peek at was charities. We reviewed two major UK charities MacMillan Cancer (they don’t appear to be running any Twitter ads) and Cancer Research UK (Facebook & Twitter). A few of our team have worked for charities before and have first-hand knowledge of how important paid advertising is. Nothing surprising here either as the main two charities leverage strong emotive storytelling within their awareness and fundraising campaigns.
Each retailer has a different target market and brand image, and so our team found comparing their ads pretty interesting. There seems to be a trend of retailers advertising more so on Facebook, probably due to the variety of ad type available on Facebook compared to those available on Twitter.
Impacts this might have
The idea behind this change is that the public has more transparency about what adverts an account is putting out, supposedly as a way of giving us more insight into the motivations and tactics of a specific account. The additional information being shared about political advertisers is quite clearly a way to make it harder for them to hide their motivations. That doesn’t just apply to foreign interests, but also to genuine, recognized parties that might not want the general public to know what tactics they are employing.
A key difference between online advertising and advertising in other mediums is it can be a lot harder from the outside to track and prove what is going on, online, particularly as platforms like Facebook allow you to set a limit on how many times an individual will see your ad. A misleading billboard or TV ad can be called out but it can be harder to detect a deceptive or damaging social ad campaign.
This principle doesn’t just apply to political advertisers, while non-political advertisers won’t have the veil pulled back to quite the same extent, the ads and landing pages they are using will become publicly searchable and, as a result, an easier subject of critique.
What our consulting team thinks about these changes
Dominic Woodman - I don’t think this will matter in partisan advertising
For big brands, this is undoubtedly going to give people more accountability. Adidas can’t easily spin up a shell account/page to run Adidas adverts. Seeing it and clicking through to it will immediately raise questions.
Who owns this page? What’s with the questionable targeting/messaging? Oh look, most of the ads are for Adidas.
I’m not optimistic this will make a difference for political advertising however because accountability won’t work in the same way. Hyper-partisan pages which swing to one side or the other, like this defending the confederacy, I can’t imagine being shamed by having to show they’re targeting people with right-wing interests.
And if you were the Trump campaign and wanted to run a bunch of questionable ads and not be accountable? Just spin up a bunch of legitimate sounding political interest groups and have those run one ad at a time. It’ll be just as hard to monitor as it was in the previous election.
Facebook have talked about archiving political ads in their announcement, and while that will continue to shine a light on the unpleasant mess that is current political ads, people already know it (or they don’t care, and this won’t change their minds). The media has been pushing this line hard for months now.
Facebook is making moves to restrict the supply, rather than just monitor. They made an announcement back in April, about their move to restrict who is allowed to run political ads, but it definitely feels more targeted at curbing overseas influence than dealing with hyper-partisan ad targeting and even then the devil is in the details: what will count as an issue ad, how well will they identify people who don’t sign up for this process etc etc.
Currently, I’m still not super positive the changes will have much of an effect on political advertising, but if anyone involved in that industry is reading this, I’d love to hear your take on it. Comment me plz.
Emily Potter - A PR stunt with few real consequences
The social media giants are unquestionably under a lot of pressure to address the public and government bodies' concerns about lack of transparency in advertising and data collection, in addition to the role they have played in the spread of fake news. This new feature just feels to me like a bit of a PR stunt, rather than something adding anything of substantial value.
If Facebook and Twitter were providing the same level of information available on political advertisers for corporate advertising campaigns, then I’d be more inclined to feel something radical was happening. They’d never willingly do that though. These tools are the exact sort of thing that makes it look like they’re making big changes internally, without exposing controversial information that would truly change the landscape.
But more pressing than the public pressure Facebook, Twitter and the likes are under to demonstrate that they are working hard to address these problems, is the threat regulation places to their business models. They’re in an arms race to prove they can regulate themselves before government bodies impose strict regulations on them. Regulations that will inevitably constrict the growth they’ve seen over the past decade.
I’m in agreement that the “Wild West” era of technology and social media corporates is coming to a close, and these last-ditch efforts are not going to stop them from being confronted with the same sorts of regulations imposed on banks and other financial institutions following the 2008 financial crisis.
They’ll survive though. Regulation on financial institutions has increased, but they still find new and innovative ways to increase their profitability. Tech will be no different. But it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.
Tim Allen - This creates a good opportunity for marketers to research competitors better
My immediate reaction to this news was positive. From an agency perspective and for anyone out there doing competitor research we are no longer locked into waiting to see ads to understand what our competitors are doing. I now have a wealth of new information and inspiration which can be applied to ads for both my clients and for Distilled.
The cynic in me feels that we either won’t have this tool very long, or it will quickly be abused, most likely the latter will cause the former to happen. But for now we should bask in the new insights we can get into our competitors and take the opportunity to look at what incredibly well-known brands, publishers and individuals are doing with their paid budget.
Robin Lord - This is one of the nice things I’m sure we can’t have
Facebook and Twitter are under a lot of pressure for ads on their platforms to be more accountable. As US Congress considers how to regulate the platforms, it’s understandable that the platforms want to show visible signs that they are breaking down barriers and letting us see how we’re being targeted politically or otherwise.
The problem is, the current climate is largely a response to people using the platform in unexpected ways. Facebook’s main defense during the Cambridge Analytica scandal was they didn’t realise the data was being used that way and - let’s be fair - not many accurately predicted the effectiveness of ad-based election interference.
There are some really nice aspects of these information centres, for instance, the Facebook active ad list tells you if the page name has been changed - which is some protection against pages getting approved for political ads, then changing its face regularly to send polarising ads in different directions. Opening up this data might allow for policing through transparency. However, it also offers a few opportunities for bad actors, a few that come to mind, from least problematic to most:
- Reverse-engineering competitor conversion funnels by tracking adverts and landing pages
- Scraping competitors ad copy to quickly generate competing ads
- Creating a load of accounts to repeatedly report competitor ads (now those ads are much easier to find)
- Grabbing competitors’ active social tracking codes and landing pages by following the ads, then using them to send realistic-looking fake traffic and conversions - more effectively throwing off their spend
- Targeting the same demographics as a political party and sending more extreme versions of the same messages to polarise their supporter-base.
This might be a good way for the platforms to show willing but allowing unfettered access to this data may not be the clean fix it seems to be. Where we see a page that doesn’t seem to have any ads running - is that insight into a current lack of activity, or a sign that already some of the bigger brands in competitive industries have turned off ads until they can find a better way to cloak against competitors?
To paraphrase the Princess Bride - never go in against marketers when data is on the line.
What have you found?
As a community we are all naturally curious, so we encourage you to start scouring Facebook and Twitter and look for those interesting stories. When you find them feel free to give us a shout in the comments below or reach out to any of the contributors to this post over on Twitter (Robin Lord, Emily Potter, Dominic Woodman, Will Critchlow and Tim Allen)