Each day we seem to learn more about the Russian operatives who set up an array of misleading Web sites and social media pages to identify American voters susceptible to propaganda. Those involved with the current investigation say these operatives then used a powerful Facebook tool - Custom Audience - to repeatedly send them messages designed to influence their political behavior.
This is bad on many levels but primarily because foreign nationals are prohibited by law from spending money to influence a U.S. election.
These methods and tools used by the Russians to supposedly wield influence are the same ones available to you and me - businesses and advertisers in the digital marketing space. It's regular ad technology that regular advertisers use from small businesses to big oil and pharmaceutical companies.
While the jury is still out to the actual effectiveness of the Russian meddling, there are some lessons here that may prove useful to how a marketing agency or business can wield their own power of influence. We are certainly not condoning what the Russians did, but we do see this as a learning opportunity.
So what did the Russians do that we can do, too?
USED PROPER ENGLISH GRAMMAR
Most of us don't think about this too much, but for the Russians, this aspect was quite important. They knew to be successful they had to be credible. And a big part of that was appealing to their audience in the language they knew. I'm sure it will come out during the investigation which English-speakers participated in the ad creations but the lesson here is that proper use of language provides authenticity and believability.
TEST TEST TEST
There's some controversy over the extent of ads the Russians placed on Facebook. Facebook itself is turning over 3,000 ads they identified coming from rogue sources which amounted to $100,000 in spend. This is a drop in the bucket in terms of political spend, but one theory points to the Russians using these ads as tests to see what would play.
Regular digital agencies (and media companies) routinely use Facebook ad buys to test whether stories and their attached “packaging” will fly on the social network. You run a bunch of different variations and find the one that the most people share. It would be quite reasonable that there was a small testing budget to see what content the operatives should push. In this case, the buys wouldn’t be about direct distribution of content—they aren’t trying to drive clicks or page likes—but merely to learn about what messages work.
THE RIGHT MATERIAL AND A LITTLE MONEY GOES A LONG WAY
Given the billions that were spent in the U.S. on the presidential campaign, $100,000 might not sound like a lot. But according to a tally by the Daily Beast, those 3,000 ads “were likely seen by a minimum of 23 million people and might have reached as many as 70 million,” meaning that “up to 28 percent of American adults were swept in by the campaign.”
Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal. The ads employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim memes.
They clearly illustrate that the copywriters knew how to find the hot buttons of their targets and push them hard. These ads were shared and passed along multiple times in order to reach the multi-million mark. The lesson here is to know how your target thinks, breathes, eats, and sleeps.
Russian operatives are suspected of using a Facebook “retargeting” tool, called Custom Audiences, to send specific ads and messages to voters. Any American who knowingly or unknowingly clicked on a Russian news site, for example, may have been targeted through Facebook’s advertising systems to become an agent of influence. Every successful click gives them more data that they can use to retarget. It feeds on itself and it speeds up the influence dramatically. Hundreds of Russian sites were loaded up with ad tracking software, known as cookies, that would allow them to follow any visitor across the Web onto Facebook.
Facebook's Custom Audiences tool enabled Russian advertisers to feed information from those cookies into Facebook’s systems, which could match them with the accounts of particular Facebook users. Facebook users were then shown ads featuring divisive topics that the Russians wanted to promote in their Facebook news feeds. As targeted users clicked on the Facebook ads, the system would eventually take them to Web pages outside Facebook, where they would be tracked with more-aggressive forms of tracking software.
Facebook introduced Custom Audiences in mid-2012, in the middle of the presidential election contest between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Advertisers hailed the tool as a major innovation because it enabled them to know the interests of individuals. People who signal interest in a subject by clicking on a link are also considered more impressionable when they are repeatedly targeted by ads. The tool became a driver of Facebook’s ad business — and of the company’s sevenfold increase in value since its initial public offering in 2012.
More details are sure to emerge from the ongoing investigations, but in the meantime, if you want to grow your business influence you don't need to hire a Russian government agency. Hire us. We may also have some ideas about how to influence Russian elections, but we should take that discussion offline.