In this Social Media blog post, we’ll be exploring how recent ‘news’ on how the major political parties utilised ‘dark posts’ in the 2017 General Election, how this has been covered by the press and why it’s very much time for a new term to describe ‘dark posts’.
The 2017 General Election – the Social Media election?
Or was it 2015? Or 2010? Since Barack Obama took office in 2008 thanks to a Social Media heavy campaign , commentators in the UK have been yearning for something similar.
That landmark election where they can vindicate their opinions on how important Social Media is by claiming how it played the crucial role in deciding the election.
2010 came and went. Social’s role was important, but not critical. 2015 came and went. And still Social wasn’t the deciding factor. A month removed from the result of #GE2017 and there’s good evidence to suggest that 2017 perhaps was the year where Social Media decided the result.
Labour’s Social Media game was on point
It’s hard to imagine what Labour’s vote tally would have been if it wasn’t for a sophisticated, targeted and good natured Social Media campaign. Mobilising a younger demographic into political action is no easy feat.
Corbyn’s appeal as an establishment antihero worked well and allowed him to more naturally fit into content that would have genuine appeal to a younger, typically disinterested audience.
The fact that this exists shows you how far Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal to the youth came during the last election.
Labour’s use of grime influencers was a particularly novel approach that seems to have massively paid off. For which Labour’s comms team should be massively congratulated for. Not all MPs get this so right – as Greg Knight can attest to.
The Tories use of Social Media was too aggressive
Speaking of the Conservatives, they’re approach to Social was deemed to be much less good natured.
Hostile, attacking ads aimed at their political rivals seemed to dominate their Social Media content strategy, particularly on Facebook. It’s difficult to say how much harm this approach caused their campaign.
Regardless of whether it was their Facebook ads or not, the polls spoke for themselves and the Tories campaign was derided as one of the worst in living memory.
Among so many others, one thing that has been picked up on, particularly by the media, is how both parties employed ‘dark posts’ to run their more targeted and aggressive Facebook ads.
Before we continue, a little education piece.
What are Dark Posts?
Dark posting is a strategy for publishing and posting ads to select, targeted audience groups with very specific ads.
By running ads ‘dark’ they only enter the newsfeeds of a very specific target audience that you specify.
Doing so allows you to run a number of different messages or ad variations to a number of different audience groups.
If you wanted to run the same video – but with a different message to men and women – then you would create two separate dark posts to target both groups.
All of this allows for a much more sophisticated and granular advertising strategy through Facebook, targeting the audience you want with the message you want them to see.
Best of all, your dark posts won’t appear on your Facebook page. That means your Facebook following won’t be bombarded with lots of variations of the same ad. It also means that they won’t see anything that’s not relevant to them.
Effectively, it’s just a much cleaner and specific way of advertising through Facebook.
Into the darkness
The media’s coverage of the Tories use of ‘Dark Posts’ would suggest that there is something inherently nefarious and sinister in their usage.
Dark posting is, and has been, a long established strategy for brands and Social Media advertisers. Any Facebook campaign using Paid media will employ them and there is nothing inherently sinister about their existence or use.
However, for a headline obsessed, fake news digesting electorate, to label this approach as ‘dark’ implies that this approach is devious or underhand.
Critics have reacted to this approach with disdain, claiming that it is undemocratic and obfuscates the transparency in which an election is supposed to be held.
Claims that these dark posts are no one can ‘officially see’ these ads or that they are ‘difficult to track’ are simply unfounded. As such, we thought we’d debunk a few myths.
Dark posts are visible even if you’re not targeted by them
Dark posts appear in news feeds of those who an advertiser wants. This will, by its very nature, exclude some from seeing the post. They also won’t appear on the brand’s own Facebook page.
However, they still appear in user’s newsfeeds. And they can be viewed by everyone, if those who are targeted by the ad tag, link or share it with those who aren’t.
To suggest that they are somehow invisible and outside the realms of electoral regulators is simply untrue.
Dark posts are difficult to track
Dark posting is actually encouraged by Facebook when looking to run more action-orientated advertisements. While you can opt to run a number of ads through your Facebook page, by ‘boosting’ content, the full suite of ads are available through dark posting.
Facebook has made an awful lot of money through the sophistication of these very ads because they are immensely trackable. Each & every post – for both boosted content & dark posts – have a huge amount performance data assigned to them that allows for performance tracking.
While this data is only accessible by the advertisers or and 3rd party tools they might be using (here’s a good one by the way www.socialacumen.co), it is naïve to think that this data would be immediately available to the public.
No advertising medium – digital or not – would actively publish its client’s data around how their ads are performing, who they’re targeting and how much money they are spending.
Political parties present different challenges to your more traditional advertiser. However, if the rules for these parties dictate that this data must be publically available, you couldn’t possibly ask for a better platform than Facebook to deliver this data.
The granularity in which you can report on Social ads – dark posted or otherwise – is insane. If you want this data to be made public, then better regulations are required if political parties are going to be permitted to use Facebook ads in the future.
So why have dark posts come under such scrutiny?
Hopefully, we’ve pointed out that dark posts themselves aren’t that shady a practice. Their usage is entirely commonplace across the advertising industry and for good reason.
Why then has there been such a furore around their use in the last election?
A lot it seems to be that it’s an easy headline to write:
“<insert political party> uses “dark posts” to win election”
smacks of entirely underhand, Machiavellian tactics that, to the British electorate, just isn’t cricket.
In a political context, it conveys back room, dodgy dealing that the UK has become acutely aware of. In an advertising context, it doesn’t feel that comfortable a term and implies a brand is doing something it doesn’t want to be discovered.
Therefore, it’s time for a new way of describing this approach to Facebook advertising.
‘Unpublished’ has been a long time synonym for dark posting. But this feels inadequate and paradoxical, given that you are of course publishing it for it to become an ad.
Our best suggestions – Focused, Tailored, Custom – feel not only more accurate but far less insidious.
We’re calling for a change and an abandonment of the term ‘dark post’. At a time where Social Media platforms are coming under such scrutiny, this is one of the quicker changes Facebook can make to improve its public image. One that has been long overdue.