To be accurate, it wasn’t Trump himself; it was the Trump Organization. Parscale had handled a few websites for Trump’s real estate ventures, and in 2015, the organization contacted him with a new project — an election website. Within months, Parscale was in charge of then-candidate Trump’s online marketing efforts.
The rest is, of course, history. To hear Parscale tell his story, he quickly mastered pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, using Facebook and Google to hone in on Trump’s likely supporters. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Parscale seems like a veritable genius.
“We were making hundreds of thousands of [Facebook ads] programmatically,” he explained. “[On an] average day, 50,000 to 60,000 ads, … changing language, words, colors, changing things because certain people like a green button better than a blue button, some people like the word ‘donate’ over ‘contribute.'”
That strategy sounds amazing. But Parscale isn’t the only one who knows how to wield it.
First, a few caveats about the Parscale approach: We have no idea how much Facebook helped Trump — and whether Parscale can reasonably take credit for the election, given that other forces (including Russian influence on social media) may have also played a role. What we do know is that the Trump paid about $70 million in online advertisements, and if we take Parscale at his word, most of that money went into Facebook ads.
“Twitter is how [Trump] talked to the people,” Parscale told 60 Minutes. “Facebook was going to be how he won.”
Why Facebook? The site’s advertising tool provides unprecedented power. Parscale was able to use it to advertise to rural voters in Florida’s panhandle or near factories in Michigan. He focused on small areas of influence, sending out his message to the types of people that he couldn’t reach with television ads or other traditional marketing techniques.
“These social platforms were all invented by very liberal people on the West and East Coasts and we figured out how to use it to push conservative values,” he says.
But that makes Parscale’s admittedly impressive achievement sound too perfect. He presents himself as if he exposed a flaw in Facebook’s advertising platform, but in reality, he simply used the technology as it was designed — and used it well. Contrary to Parscale’s claims, nobody from Facebook was assigned directly to the Trump campaign, although the site does admit that the campaigns “approached things differently.”
The Trump campaign poured money into Facebook, Twitter, and Google, but that’s by no means a new strategy.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) put similar emphasis on social media in 2008, and US News referred to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign as “the Facebook election.” The advertising tools have certainly become more powerful and precise, but the methods Parscale details on 60 Minutes are familiar to online outreach experts like, ahem, ourselves: Perform constant research, constantly vary ads, study data, and continually make improvements. It’s the type of campaign we manage regularly (we’re waiting for our interview, Lesley Stahl).
Of course, there’s a weakness in using Facebook as a standalone marketing tool: Ads only appear on Facebook. People use the social site for, well, socialization, so they’re not always motivated to take action. They might share a pro-Trump article, but they might be less inclined to attend a town hall meeting or write their congressman on behalf of a cause. Likewise, Google ads will lead searchers to a site, but there’s an old adage about leading horses to water and getting them to drink (we’ll look up the exact adage later).
A sound online marketing campaign will take this into consideration and build out other successful elements, including on-page SEO and content marketing.
The takeaway is that Parscale’s methods aren’t limited to his own company, and while he might not like to admit it, any cause or candidate can use online political marketing successfully. They simply have to know what they’re doing—and choose partners that can present their message capably.
So, why haven’t the causes you care about utilized Facebook and Google ads as successfully as Trump? They have; they just don’t brag on 60 Minutes. When used properly, these powerful tools can support great causes and deliver clear messages to engage communities and mobilize supporters — just like Brad Parscale did for Trump’s voters.