How Russia pulled off the best social campaign of 2016 with just $100,000

As the American Senate investigates an alleged social media advertising campaign to influence Trump's victory, Happy Marketer's Prantik Mazumdar takes his hat off to the Russian agency that reached 126 million people with barely any budget

Sixty years after the game-changing launch of ‘Sputnik’, the Russians seem to be triggering a new war – only this time through social media.

No doubt you will have now seen the reports on how the American authorities have accused the Russians of running a US$100,000 Facebook advertising campaign with the motive of misinforming and provoking the electorate, thereby influencing the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections in Donald Trump’s favour.  

While the jury is still out on whether this campaign actually swayed the elections for the Republican leader, the damage has seemingly been done for Facebook, as the social media giant find itself forced before authorities to deem its role in the Russian ‘fake news’ campaign.

Yet as a marketer who has helped clients run millions of dollars’ worth of ad campaigns, my first reaction was ‘really? Can the paltry sum US$100,000 ad campaign actually derail elections and undermine the institutions of one of the largest democratic nations of the world? As one digs deeper, one learns that this wasn’t a one-off ad campaign but one that seems to have been well thought-through and orchestrated to have a very strong ‘ROI’. So what are some of the ‘real’ lessons we can learn from this alleged ‘fake’ social media campaign?

Organic reach is far more interactive, influential and impactful than paid

From the investigations thus far, it has been established that the Internet Research Agency, a secretive company in St. Petersburg, known for spreading Kremlin-linked propaganda, had bought 3,000 ads on Facebook through 470 pages, that had a reach of 10 million impressions in the US. But as Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University discovered, the frame of the Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential Elections in the U.S. isn’t limited to just those 3,000 ads, but rather the collective impact of all the organic posts, each like, comment, share alongside those ads.

As part of his research, Albright found that the most recent 500 posts from six of the fake pages and discovered that the content had been ‘shared’ 340 million times and had enjoyed 19.1 million social interactions, a collective measure of the likes and comments the posts had garnered.

His study alludes to the fact that whilst the fake ads garnered a reach of 10 million, the total reach from the organic posts is likely to run into the billions and how more people had direct interactions with regular posts from just six accounts than saw the ads from all 470 Russian pages combined. Evidently, while digital has become synonymous with paid ads, the impact of earned media through organic reach and genuine influencers can be incredibly powerful if the content resonates well with the audience.

Dish out content based on their specific micro-interests

Russia’s key objective was to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but they knew that their target audience was fragmented and had diverse political interests. To tackle this, the Internet Research Agency bought ads that came in many disguises.

The 470 specific pages targeted different interest groups: six of these sites have been made public during the ongoing investigation – Blacktivists, United Muslims of America, Being Patriotic, Heart of Texas, Secured Borders and LGBT United. Each of these pages shared organic content mostly in the form of memes and bought ads to amplify their reach.

They even created a Facebook group for animal lovers with memes of adorable puppies. This acted as a neutral placebo page that misled audiences to political propaganda websites and those audiences were exposed to political ads with fake messages through retargeting. The lesson for marketers to take from this is don’t target audience just as ‘millennials’ or based on certain demography alone. Use data to find out their specific interests and then create content around those topics in the formats that they relate to.

Content is only king when it evokes emotions and compels one to interact and share it.

The bulk of the content or the ads shared by the Russian campaign were fake but they all had one thing in common – they evoked emotion in some form. They either made one laugh, instilled pride, evoked hatred, made you cringe or reassured some as their political concerns were addressed.

The same can be said of every tweet that has been misfired by Trump even at an unearthly hour – even his fiercest critic would admit that every post, speech and even his handshake would evoke emotion and compel people to react and talk about it, irrespective of whether the content is fake or real or whether one likes or dislikes him.

Facebook’s most powerful weapon: dark posts and custom audiences

One of the challenges the federal investigators are grappling with, is that unlike the political ads that ran on television or radio, most of the Russian ads were dark ads, which advertisers can serve to individual users without leaving any trace behind. And then they disappear once users thumb past them.

For marketers, instead of flooding your timelines with too many posts, some of them can be run as “dark social posts” to a very narrow sliver of your target audience; and you can run these micro-targeted campaigns through the custom audience feature and chose to further grow your audience base through the “look alike” feature made available on most social media networks.

Test and run multiple variants of your creatives and let data be the judge

By now every marketer worth her salt would have heard of ‘A/B’ testing irrespective of whether they practice it or not; but given the scale of digital it is not enough to just test two versions, but to rather pit thousands of versions of the creatives for different control and test groups to see which one gels with which group.

A Washington Post story commented on this subject, noting that each day, the campaign would start with about 20,000 ad variations, testing different messages against a complex set of targeting factors such as age and device usage, as well as past actions such as recent donations. Throughout the day, they swapped in various images of Trump or short-burst videos with captions, hunting for the most viral combination. By the end of a typical day, the Trump operation averaged 40,000 to 60,000 ad variations — a supercharged version of the kind of comparative testing many campaigns use.

We need to integrate the power of our creative imagination and run experiments based on the principles of behavioural economics and allow data to determine which ad variations are driving results rather than run a few creatives purely based on human instinct.

Adopt a multi-channel approach beyond just the Big Four

Facebook and Zuckerberg are bearing most of the brunt in this episode but the truth is that the Russians executed an integrated, multi-channel campaign across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google and possibly also on private ‘dark social’ channels like WhatsApp and Messenger where things are harder to track on. In fact, the campaign spread well beyond Facebook to sites like Reddit, Instagram, 4chan and Imgur — other popular online social networks — making it more difficult for any one company to curb the tide of fake accounts.

A takeaway from this is that the digital canvas is a large, diverse one and while one is likely to spend majority of one’s time, budget and energy managing campaigns on the four of the largest digital channels, one shouldn’t ignore the ‘long tail’ of the spectrum of channels, especially the messenger chat apps, forums, discussion groups and certain publishers.

The Russians may have struck again to trigger a digital Cold War, but one is hopeful that the authorities and digital firms will get to the bottom of this to uncover the true impact of this fake campaign. Until then, the marketing community should feel optimistic about what a well-orchestrated US$100,000 ad campaign can achieve in a few weeks and strive to drive real impact through lessons learnt from these fake Russian ads.

Prantik Mazumdar is a managing partner at digital marketing agency Happy Marketer


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