Should brands join the Facebook ad boycott?

As calls for the worlds largest brands to boycott Facebook in response to its policies on hate speech, Olivia Wedderburn, associate social director for TMW Unlimited, offers some advice to brands considering whether they should join the cause.

Resentment and mistrust of social media platforms, especially Facebook and its family of apps, have been growing for quite some time. Controversies around the handling of Covid-19 information and the Black Lives Matter movements – arguably two of the biggest crises of this generation – have brought those currents to the surface.

With citizens indoors and more concerned than ever with the forces at play behind modern day racism and hate speech, online activism has increased in importance. This has led to civil rights charities such as ADL, Colour of Change, NAACP and Sleeping Giants to get behind ‘#StopHateForProfit‘ – a campaign similar to the British Stop Funding Hate tabloid boycott earlier in the decade. The idea behind this new boycott is to cease advertising spending on social platforms, thereby pressuring them to reassess how they deal with abuse. The demands on the social platforms aren’t entirely clear, but a good place to start would be data transparency and controlling the spread of fake news and hate speech.

Initially, this was posed as a US-based boycott, but over the past few days the global influence of massive brands such as Coca-Cola and Unilever has seen this boycott of Facebook trickle into markets across the world. There are threats that the boycott of spend will go on beyond July, and many have expanded the boycott beyond Facebook into all social spaces. This global extension became a problem local to the UK with the release of a report from the Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, which detailed the danger of a “pandemic of misinformation”.

This provides brands with a stark choice.

Are you in or out?

The choice for brands is straightforward, but hugely significant – does this boycott align with your brand purpose and corporate responsibility? Is it a cause you actively want to support? If the answer is yes, we believe you should consider suspending paid activity on Facebook and Instagram and extending this across to all social platforms. If, on the other side of the coin, you do not think that this campaign aligns with your current business priorities, then we would recommend continuing as normal, while continuing to monitor the global reaction, before making any further decisions. Both sides have potential pitfalls, so we have created some guidelines to navigate them.

Getting involved

If you’ve decided that your brand should participate in this boycott, you need to consider all the nuances within this. Brands nervous about pulling out of social entirely may look for loopholes in order to get their product seen by upweighting influencer and partnership deals or using audience network placements (Facebook’s in app offering). If you’ve committed to the boycott, being caught exploiting loopholes is a bad look.

What platforms are definitely in? Should you extend it across every one of your paid social channels, or other digital channels?

If you’ve decided that your brand should participate in this boycott, you need to consider all the nuances within this. Brands nervous about pulling out of social entirely may look for loopholes in order to get their product seen by upweighting influencer and partnership deals or using audience network placements (Facebook’s in app offering). If you’ve committed to the boycott, being caught exploiting loopholes is a bad look for your brand.

What platforms are definitely in? Should you extend it to all social? Should you consider other digital channels?

Facebook’s family of apps and services – Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Messenger are bad, or good, as each other in this debate. But they’re hardly the only services that play a role in spreading hate speech. YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Snapchat, Twitch, Twitter and influencers have all contributed, to larger and lesser degrees.

It’s also worth considering the role of organic plays in your social strategy over the next month. The boycott is overwhelmingly centred around the suspension of paid activity, but there are little to no calls to suspend always on posting. Organic activity doesn’t impact Facebook’s revenue in the same way suspending campaign activity does, and many brands who announced the July boycott earlier in June continued to post every day after the fact. It is also incredibly important to continue servicing your customers through community management – suspending this arm of your social activity could see a huge dip in sentiment.

Let it be known

Ben and Jerry’s, Patagonia and Rei were some of the first brands to take a stand and get behind this boycott, but at the time of writing more than 100 worldwide have publicly vouched their support. Some announced it via press releases. Some announced it via organic activity on the very platforms they’re cracking down on. Regardless, they let it be known – because if you’re going to be silent on social for a month or more, you’d benefit from letting your audience know where you’re going.

Put your money where your mouth is

There is a growing level of scepticism around the movement being bandwagoned by brands who have faced serious cuts to their marketing budget in the wake of Covid-19. In order for the move not to seem cynical, we’d recommend either making a public donation to one of the aforementioned founding charities or redirecting your budget into other channels.

Be ready for boycott backlash

There is always a healthy level of criticism for brands involving themselves in social movements, typically centred around it being seen as a profit building exercise rather than a genuine push for change. Be prepared for that perception of your brand and be prepared to answer as such. If you have previously remained silent on big societal issues, there may be some backlash, and you may find yourself under scrutiny. However, a cursory glance across the social space indicates that this boycott is industry led action over consumer motivated action, and there is a likelihood that no comments on activity ceasing will occur at all.

There is also the very real concern that this boycott could be picked up by bigger brands and will run for months and months, meaning that you could be cutting yourself out of the social conversation for an unspecified period of time, or could face criticism for returning at all.

Either way, it is best to ensure you have a PR position ready to go on your involvement.

Redirect your marketing budget

At the end of the day, if you’re advertising on social media you have a product you need to sell, and not everyone has budgets to shift to an ATL strategy (though of course if this is an option, please do consider it). With that in mind, we recommend these alternative digital options.

Alternative social platforms: Some brands have made the decision to spread the boycott to all social platforms, others have taken a look at Twitter and decided they’re just as bad as Facebook. Depending on your brand, it might make sense to shift your spend into TikTok, Pinterest and Snapchat, or perhaps looking at redirecting it to YouTube as a more content focussed channel. It is worth noting that no social platform is perfect when it comes to tackling hate speech, and to approach any with caution if you’ve made a big display over ceasing with Zuckerberg.

Target new digital audiences: Over the last few years, audience targeting and segmentation has improved massively through the digital platforms of Playstation and Xbox which allow for a new way into your online audience. This also extends to streaming services like Roku and Twitch, allowing for you to connect with your audience in a less toxic forum than traditional social.

Experiment with online video display: This may be a good time to look into other digital video channels and advertising networks, such as Spotify, Teads, Unruly, Google Display Network, Amazon and Ratuken. This is an especially appealing approach for those looking for direct inventory routes.

Go direct: If you know your audience is in a very specific space, or over indexes against certain publications, why not strike up a deal direct? Publishers like Verizon, Hearst Magazines and IDG have vast networks of online and engaged users.

Leverage programmatic: Programmatic buying options allow you to cover multiple placements at once, so partnering with platforms like Quantcast and Captify might be the right fit depending on your audience and objective.

Staying clear

For many brands, especially those with more modest marketing budgets, social is a lifeline for their business and to connect with consumers. Whilst there are hundreds of brands participating in the boycott, there are some who simply cannot afford to. Additionally, there are brands who are currently working with platforms to address hate speech and misinformation, and don’t feel the boycott is the most effective way to solve these concerns. Nestlé are one of these brands, caveating that “while conversations have been constructive so far, we are closely tracking any progress and action. Depending on how the situation progresses, we will continue to evaluate our plans for the remainder of the year accordingly.”

Expect it to be noticed

As previously mentioned, there are no concrete indicators that consumers will actively be picking up brands who do or don’t partake in the boycott. That being said, a huge amount of discourse around ’#BlackOutTuesday’ surrounded which brands did or didn’t get involved. For what it is worth, it seemed that those who did get involved experienced more explicit investigation into their commitment to the cause than those who didn’t.

Have your position firm

It is worth developing a holding line or series of FAQs specifically around your decision not to involve yourself in this boycott. If consumers come to your ads asking questions, preparing your community management team with a clear company position allows for swift action. With this in mind, it is worth upweighting your community management to allow for more rapid response times within your team if you don’t feel your current hours are sufficient. We’d also recommend establishing a clear escalation strategy with any key stakeholders and community teams

Be cautious with your copy

In times of heightened tension, anything can be picked apart or criticised. It’s probably worth sense checking any planned creative and support copy to make sure it’s mindful and won’t cause any potential flare ups

Keep calm and carry on

For many brands, social media is an affordable and effective marketing model that works for them and helps them survive. They simply don’t have the budgets or awareness of larger corporations that allows them to move into other marketing methods, and cutting out their social strategy all together would be incredibly detrimental to them. With this in mind, if your brand relies on social and e-commerce to survive, do not feel the pressure to fold in on this. We will help you navigate through it and find a solution that is the right fit for you and your needs.

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