UPDATE: When asked whether Facebook had altered the ad system to alleviate the problems described in this story, a Facebook spokesperson told ClickZ News the company had "made some changes to our ads system and these changes have been communicated to interested parties. We have no other details to share at this time."
Online advertisers are accustomed to quality scores affecting how or if their ads are served, but a recent Facebook change has political advertisers particularly concerned and frustrated. At issue is the "Report this Ad" function demarked by the small "x" above Facebook ads. Facebook has been using the results of the ad removals to inform its ad-serving algorithm. Some political advertisers say their ads should not be subject to the algorithm change.
When users click the "x" in Facebook ads, they are told, "You have removed this ad," and asked, "Why didn't you like it?" They can choose from a list of options to describe the removed ad including uninteresting, misleading, offensive and repetitive.
While many consumer brands do not elicit a passionate response from users, politicians and political organizations often do. Digital political consultants who run Facebook campaigns on behalf of political candidates say opponents of their clients can easily call their ads "misleading" or "offensive," which can lower an ad's quality score or knock off a campaign from Facebook altogether.
"It just crushes your quality score and the next thing you know your ad isn't running," said Zac Moffatt, partner at Targeted Victory, an agency that often runs Facebook ad campaigns on behalf of Republican candidates. Moffatt said he saw the ad removal data affect multiple campaigns toward the end of the 2010 election cycle.
While national campaigns targeting a variety or groups across several geographic areas may not be affected, the algorithm alteration can have a damaging impact on campaigns targeting niche audience segments in small geographic regions, such as Republicans in a particular city or town, for example.
When running a small campaign targeting Republicans within one state in recent weeks, digital communications firm Harris Media saw the ads "flatline or go to zero," according to CEO Vincent Harris. He believes the campaign was shut down when opponents of the candidate clicked to remove the ad, prompting Facebook to pull the campaign. In a small, local race, or a heated primary race, he suggested, "There are going to be people who don't like your ad, give negative feedback, and then the ad can be blocked."
In a post on TechRepublican.com in December, Harris explained why including the ad removal results in ad-serving data could have an unintended effect on 2012 presidential candidates during primary season. "[F]ast-forward 6 months when numerous 2012 candidates are advertising on Facebook. If a certain number of anti-Mitt Republicans saw an ad for Mitt Romney and clicked 'offensive, etc.' they could block ALL of Mitt Romney's ads from being shown, and kill the entire online advertising campaign regardless of how much money the Romney campaign wanted to spend on Facebook."
Calling for political advertisers to rally around the cause, Harris wrote, "Facebook is a critically important tool to reaching voters, but as digital advertising continues to be fine-tuned I would hope ad servers wouldn't forget about the political space when they are coming up with formulas for ad distribution."
Facebook said it is working on a fix. "We have always taken user feedback into consideration when choosing which ads to show," stated a Facebook spokesperson in an e-mail sent to ClickZ News. "We recently updated how we do this to give more weight to user feedback. While this shows more relevant ads to most people, it had the unintended consequence of negatively affecting political ads as people 'X-ed' out ads for politicians they didn't support. We are aware of this and working to have a fix in place in the next couple of weeks."
Moffatt agreed the ad removal effect is "definitely an issue" for political advertisers. "This was an issue in September or October that we identified. You can mark the day when it happened," he said. "We had to go in and recreate all our ads."
Harris said Facebook has told him the firm is working on a resolution. Earlier this week he told ClickZ: "The issue isn't fixed yet, and we are still having the same issue occur." He said he is confident the ad removal data is still at the heart of the problem.
"It's kind of anti-political speech...but at the same time there's got to be some limit to how often you're pounding people with ads," suggested Eric Frenchman, chief Internet strategist for CDI, a consulting firm that works with Republican campaigns.
Moffatt said if Facebook does not alter the ad-serving algorithm to take into account the special needs of political advertisers, it could influence future Facebook ad spending. "Facebook needs to treat this vertical, I think, differently than they do others," he said. "This would be the difference between allocating 'x' percent of your budget and a multiple of 'x.'"
UPDATE: This story was updated to include the statement from Facebook, sent to ClickZ after the story was originally published.
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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