Feb 16, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Inside the Trump campaign's big hedge on Facebook

Illustration of shopping cart carrying Facebook, Twitter, and Google icons.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Trump campaign has invested most of its advertising budget to date on Facebook, testing thousands of versions of ads per day to maximize its spending.

But behind the scenes, a source familiar with the campaign tells Axios, the thinking has shifted: "As everyone can see, we still have strong spending on Facebook, but the percentage of our total media budget [on Facebook] is shrinking."

The big picture: Since the last election, it's become obvious that all campaigns are at risk of the changing algorithms and policies at Facebook, or on any platform. People familiar with the Trump campaign described its thinking in detail to Axios.

  • Last fall, the campaign urged Facebook to keep the same tools for political advertisers that they make available to companies.
  • "Facebook wants to take important tools away from us for 2020. Tools that help us reach more great Americans & lift voices the media & big tech choose to ignore! They want to raise prices to put more of your hard earned small dollar donations into their pockets," the campaign tweeted in November.
  • Facebook ultimately decided not to change its policies around microtargeting.

Details: Today, the campaign is testing new strategies on several dozen platforms, including YouTube, Google, ad exchanges, publisher networks and conservative podcasts. The goal is to be less dependent on Facebook — though the platform will still play a crucial role in the Trump 2020 strategy.

  • The Trump campaign began buying ads on conservative podcasts last spring, including shows hosted by staunch Trump allies Charlie Kirk and Laura Ingraham. The goal is to get Trump supporters more engaged in the months before Election Day.
  • "When you are quick, have speed, and money to spend, you need more levers — more places to pivot," says one source familiar with the campaign. "Better expanding outside of Facebook allows that."
  • "We're trying out dozens of places where we can communicate with voters," the source added. "Wherever that comes in an efficient way, we'll spend more money on that."

By the numbers: While the Trump campaign still spends big on Facebook ads, the percentage of its ad budget spent there has fallen significantly over the past few months, according to data from Advertising Analytics.

  • Facebook ads took up roughly 72% of the campaign's ad budget in April 2019, and more than 50% for most of the year, per Advertising Analytics. As of mid-February, however, Facebook spending was just 14% of the ad budget.
  • The notable exception was during the impeachment trial in January, when the Trump campaign blitzed Facebook with ads to capitalize on donor outrage and support.
  • From January 19 to date, Trump for President and Trump’s Make America Great Again Committee have spent about $26 million on Facebook ads out of $58 million on all media spending, per Advertising Analytics.
Data: Advertising Analytics; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Advertising Analytics; Chart: Axios Visuals

The campaign is testing fewer messages on Facebook than it did for much of 2016.

  • In 2016, at peak, the Trump campaign used 40,000–50,000 ad variations per day, sometimes even testing more than 100,000 different versions of ads. The ad makers test thousands of small changes for things like font size and color to see what gets the most clicks.
  • The campaign now uses about half as many variations than at the same point in the 2016 cycle, sources say. The campaign expects to ramp up its testing in the summer.
  • The campaign has libraries of memes, short video clips and photos that are relevant to a host of news topics. If the news cycle turns to "the Deep State," immigration or terrorism, the campaign has content ready to go.
  • "We have just terabytes of stuff of what we do for any situation," said a source familiar with the campaign. "We are still producing multiple videos a day, and multiple images a day. I mean we have libraries and libraries and libraries of content."

Between the lines: Facebook sells ads on a bidding platform, which makes them more expensive as Election Day nears and demand goes up.

  • Right now, the Trump campaign uses Facebook ads to drive sign-ups for its email and text alerts — forms of outreach that don't get more expensive with time.
  • The campaign has several million people on its text list and tens of millions of people on its email list, according to two sources familiar with the lists.

Yes, but: The campaign still relies heavily on Facebook to gather voter data and raise money. And high-speed experimentation is the essence of its Facebook ad strategy.

  • Sometimes, the most successful ad variations are surprising.
  • A 2016 example: The campaign tested ads with a train that said "Join the TRUMP TRAIN." One variant included flames around the text at the end, and it performed best. The experiment worked so well that they doubled down on it, even selling "Trump Train" stickers.

Speed is vital when testing ads. While the campaign still has a traditional creative approval process that runs through legal and political teams, it still moves fast by giving its digital team broad autonomy to build ads based on preapproved messaging.

The bottom line: Although Trump's Facebook operation gets a lot of attention, a source familiar with the campaign told Axios, "We are more diversified than ever before. And far more than 2016."

Go deeper