Dawn Varley: When targeted marketing won't fly with Facebook

Social media is increasingly important for advertising, so it pays to understand the platforms' rules before you start an ad campaign, writes our columnist

Dawn Varley
Dawn Varley

Go to any fundraising conference worth its salt these days and you should see a high proportion of content, if not a dedicated stream, focused on digital. What is "digital"? The term is bandied around so much, in so many different ways, by some many different people, that I often listen in with amusement.

Are they talking about a channel, a team, a strategy or, for bonus points, a "transformation"? Whatever it is, the truth at the heart of things is that the world is digital, and charities must be digital too to reach their audiences – be they beneficiaries, supporters, campaigners or any combination.

The extent to which a charity succeeds in delivering digitally can vary widely and is dependent on the bigger things, such as overall vision, strategy and leadership, and more practical systems, budget and skills. What is consistent, though, is that on the practical side the social media giants of Facebook and Twitter are the platforms to target in terms of accessing audience for the lowest budget.

The latest statistics show that there are an estimated 32 million user accounts for Facebook, with more than 70 per cent logging in daily. No wonder targeted Facebook adverts are a key part of the communications strategy for many charities, including some at the smaller end of the scale, such as Flying Scholarships for Disabled People, whose income averages £140,000 a year. The charity, which aims to encourage and provide grants for disabled people to learn to fly, recently created a new advertising campaign to promote what it does, and of course included Facebook in it.

The adverts brought the charity much more media exposure than it expected because it ended up in The Sun, which picked up the story after FSDP received an automated reply from Facebook advising that the adverts couldn’t be run. The Sun, as is its way, headlined the story "Facebook blasted for banning RAF’s charity disability campaign", which wasn’t an entirely fair representation of events. (It also went on to bring in ISIS beheading videos – but we won’t go there.)

In truth, on a basic level, it seems that the campaign, which was brilliant in its simple and effective marketing approach – to the right people (those with a disability), with the right product (a scholarship opportunity to learn to fly a plane) and ideally at the right time (people browsing with leisure time) – simply fell foul of Facebook’s own advertising rules on "personal attributes". This states that adverts "must not contain content that asserts or implies personal attributes. This includes direct or indirect assertions or implications about a person's race, ethnic origin, religion, beliefs, age, sexual orientation or practices, gender identity, disability, medical condition…".

The text of the adverts did ask the question "Have a disability?" and as such Facebook, quite rightly, deemed it to be in breach of the policy, with an automated email notifying the charity. This it seems, was the crux of the furore, not the "banning" of the advert. If a human had been involved in reviewing the advert, recognised the context, the product and the "seller" (a charity simply attempting to do good) then it could have perhaps have given clearer guidance, which in turn could have helped the charity tweak the advert so that it could be run quickly and easily. And we are dealing with a small charity here, so there is no "digital team" but probably one fundraiser/marcoms person at best, who had already moved on to the next thing on their longlist. I’ve not seen a revised advert, but I do hope a new version has made it through and that results are good for both potential pilots and possible supporters.

The lesson? Digital is deemed to be king, but the normal rules of advertising still apply. As do the rules of the platform that you are using, so take time to understand these. And as a sector, we should be good at rejection, and indeed claim to thrive on it (that’s another key conference session – failing faster), so when it happens we should embrace it, recalibrate as needed and crack on.

Dawn Varley is a fundraising consultant

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