Five Things We Learned About Social Media Advertising (and One Bonus Thing)

There was a time not so long ago when social media—with its promise of free advertising and a potential audience of millions all for a couple hours a week of staff time—was a no-brainer for any think tank. Today, the calculus is a little different. There are millions of users, many with the power of professional PR firms behind them. Organic reach can be measured in the low single digits. You need (at least) a full time staffer to manage things.

Generating a positive return on investment with just organic reach requires as much luck as skill. Generating positive ROI with paid advertising still requires some skill, but it’s a far more reliable method.

At the September DC breakfast club, Ashley Wood Schelling, Director of Digital Engagement at the Brookings Institution and Patrick Kane, Social Media Coordinator at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained how they are tackling these challenges.

As always, our conversation was conducted under the Chatham House rule.

Here’s some of what we learned.

1. Targeting tools are there to help.

For a very long time, think tank outreach operated on a broadcast and hope model—_broadcast_ your report in a Post story, at a big event, on your website and hope that the right people read/attend/download.

Social media advertising lets you be far more targeted. Want to talk to women between the ages of 28 and 34 who have at least one child, drive a Honda Civic, subscribe to the New Yorker, and enjoy camping? You can absolutely do exactly that.

That means you need to know your audience and it means you need to get creative. Are you looking to talk to federal legislators? Try targeting your ads at the airport the day Congress goes into recess. New report about the civil war in Syria? With a bit of digging, you can uncover cities—or even specific neighborhoods—with high levels of Syrian immigrants and target your ads on those locations.

One useful tool: Facebook lookalike audiences. Facebook will scan your existing audience, look for qualities that they share, then find other people who share those same qualities. You can then target content at people who are like the people who already like you.

2. Know what you want people to do.

It’s easy to obsess over vanity metrics—things like followers or page views or downloads. If you’re a media organization, page views matter because you are running ads on each page. The more views, the more revenue. Think tanks aren’t in the business of selling ads. They’re in the business of selling ideas.

If you want people to read your blog post, then your ads need to encourage clickthroughs and your success metrics need to measure clickthroughs. If you get a million retweets but zero link clicks on a tweet that says some form of “We published an article on [topic]. link,” then your ad hasn’t been a success.

Once you know what you want people to do, give them the easiest possible path to do it. If you want them to buy a new book by one of your scholars, then link directly to a bookstore, not to a splash page on your own website that then links to a bookstore.

3. Don’t forget about organic reach.

Advertising is a supplement to organic reach, not a replacement for it. If you find a post that’s getting some organic traction, throw some ad budget behind it. The converse is also true. Have an ad running? Ask a few scholars to go interact with it a bit. Give it a like or a RT or maybe even leave a comment. When done correctly, organic and promoted should go hand-in-hand.

4. You have to budget.

Our participants represented organizations with a wide range of social media advertising budgets. Some had only a few hundred dollars to use across the entire organization. Others regularly put several thousand dollars into a single campaign.

But everyone agreed that social media advertising needs to be built into the budget, whether that’s in the form of core funding or from inclusion in scholars’ grant applications.

And that budgeting needs to happen at the campaing level, too. Set a budget for each campaign before you start running it. Monitor it regularly to be sure that you’re getting good value. Which brings us to…

5. Test, test, test.

Marketing pioneer John Wanamaker is said to have complained that “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Thankfully, that doesn’t have to be true. Every social media platform and ad network has tools to monitor your ad’s performance. Check these regularly. Are the ads going where you expected them to? Are they reaching the right people? Are they improving engagement?

If they’re working, great! Keep doing what you’re doing.

At the same time, don’t be afraid to pull the plug on campaigns that aren’t working. Try something different. Or put the extra budget behind the things that are working better.

Bonus. The advertising model is frustrating.

Thanks to a lot of shenanigans—and a lot more subsequent bad publicity—following the 2016 US elections, social media companies cracked down on political advertising. When an algorithm tags an ad as political, organizations can no longer promote them outside of their home country.

If you focus entirely on domestic policy, that’s fine. If you work on any sort of cross-border issues, it’s much less fine.

Many participants expressed frustration at those restrictions. Evidence-based policy research isn’t politics, even when it’s about issues that are controversial. It’s an area where think tanks could try to engage with big digital companies to help them better understand the kinds of work we do.


Joe Miller is the Director of the DC studio of Soapbox, a design and digital agency that focuses on creative communications for ideas that matter. He has led digital strategy projects at Eastern Research Group, The Century Foundation, and the Congressional Budget Office. Prior to his shift to content strategy, we was a senior staff writer at, a copywriter with the Mack/Crounse Group and an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina—Pembroke and the United States Military Academy. He received his PhD in political philosophy from the University of Virginia, his MA in philosophy from Virginia Tech, and his BA in philosophy from Hampden-Sydney College.

Posted in breakfast club, campaigns, social media

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