Twitter Just Changed Its Policy On Political Ads – Should It Change How You Use Twitter?

Rob Bole

With Twitter banning all political advertising in the U.S., is the platform still an effective channel to build awareness and engagement?


On November 15th Twitter released a new ad policy – Twitter now “globally prohibits the promotion of political content.” They define ‘political content’ as any paid promotion that “references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed official,” as well as paid content referencing elections, referendums, ballot measures, legislation, [government] directives, judicial outcomes or regulations.

Twitter is also banning any paid ads by candidates, political parties, elected, or appointed government officials. In the U.S., the prohibition is extended to advertising by PACs, SuperPACs, and 501(c)(4)s.

This has set off a round of commentary of news publishers, activists and nonprofit advocacy organizations. These are well-founded concerns as we are entering into new territory in technology’s influence in society. Some of the concern regarding this new policy stems from the observation that many technology platforms have had limited understanding of the impact of their platform decisions.

While there are exemptions (most notably paid promotion by news publishers), the intention, as articulated by Founder and CEO Jack Dorsey, is that “political message reach should be earned, not bought.” His and Twitter’s concern is that while social platforms are powerful tools for commercial advertisers they are being exploited to “present entirely new challenges to civic discourse.”

Twitter is a private platform and while there are some voices questioning whether Twitter constitutes a ‘public forum,’ which would trigger free speech protections, this bold move puts other social platforms on notice. Some have said that Dorsey’s decision is more about brand and less about civic impact. But it has sparked action, as even Google starts to restrict the data it provides for targeting political advertisements.

Should Public Affairs Executives Be Concerned?

Yes. Public affairs executives should be concerned, but should continue to use Twitter. The breadth of Twitter’s ban on multiple public affairs programs, including on regulatory and judicial outcomes (litigation), means that there is one less tool available to achieve your goals. However, Twitter is a relatively affordable, nearly ubiquitous (considering the audience) channel that helps drive impressions and call-to-actions to key audiences in the U.S. federal government, the media, subject matter experts and other stakeholders.

However, this begs the question of whether Twitter will continue to be an effective channel in building awareness and building engagement around a client’s message or perspective.

In terms of driving awareness, a paid Twitter ad still packs a punch with a number of benefits, but also drawbacks. We can think of Twitter as a core tool in the toolbox, but one with limited uses, like a Phillips screwdriver – the right tool for exactly some of the jobs on your list.

It can reach a large audience. The placement of a paid ad right in the Twitter stream means there is a solid chance that messaging will be seen and absorbed. If you have a clear message with a good graphic, that information can shine in Twitter, regardless of the content policy change.

The stats are also in Twitter’s favor. Compared to other social platforms and display ads, Twitter ads have a superior click-through rate (CTR.)

However, Twitter ads have less-than-stellar targeting, which is especially important when you are focused on a small audience. This means that reaching a smaller audience with a paid Twitter ad comes with higher cost per thousand (CPM) and cost per click (CPC.)

Where Do We Go From Here?

For many digital marketing and communication professionals, especially in public affairs, Twitter as a platform is a resounding ‘meh.’ Why? Because Twitter has limited utility in building influence. Twitter is a broad tool that takes simple, clear messages and puts that in front of a relatively broad audience. It is not a surgical tool that delivers customized, context-rich information to key stakeholders at the right time with the right message.

Over the next few months, the role of Twitter will shift. Digital media campaigns will need to adapt.

Signal’s advice to clients?

  • Twitter can be an effective way to raise awareness, promote simple, clear call-to-actions and hand off audience attention to other digital and non-digital messaging. Twitter’s policy change decision makes it even more important public affairs campaigns utilize sharper targeting. The requirements are for the return of event more data about audience engagement than Twitter is willing to deliver. Twitter remains a relatively blunt tool. It will retain its broad audience but campaigns should pair it with finely targeted messaging.
  • For political messaging, Twitter continues to be a stronger organic platform where you can build direct engagement with your audience. For public affairs, paid political promotion on Twitter can enhance and broaden messaging. But there are many other channels that can fulfill these same goals. We will advise moving a portion of paid media campaigns currently on Twitter over to other platforms such as programmatic display, search engine marketing and other social platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn).
  • Spread it around – the best approach is to diversify. Reaching your audience with smart strategy means using the best tool for each job, and having an appreciation for how the landscape is changing. And it is changing fast. Storytelling with a focus on influence requires us to utilize a diversity of tools that each have different capabilities and limitations. We cannot rely on just one platform or channel to make your story sing. Smart strategy means selecting the right toolset across a range of channels to deliberately hand-off from one platform to another so that your audience is not just aware of your message, but has the opportunity to participate in the larger story.
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