Facebook and Apple’s privacy war is mucking up voter turnout efforts

"This is bad. I didn't think it would be this bad."

"I voted" stickers
Photo: Element5 Digital/Unsplash

Tatenda Musapatike is as familiar as anyone with the way Facebook's political ad system works. During the 2016 election and the 2018 midterms, she helped Democrats run Facebook ads as a client solutions manager for the company, before leaving in 2019 and eventually launching her own nonprofit to focus on turning out voters from underrepresented groups.

So this year, when Apple introduced privacy changes that allowed iOS users to opt out of being tracked by apps, including Facebook, Musapatike knew better than most that the switch would be hard on Facebook's political advertisers.

She had no idea it would be this hard.

In a new report released Thursday by Musapatike's organization, Voter Formation Project, the group found that in the run-up to Election Day this year there was a precipitous decline in the percentage of conversion ads Facebook was serving to iOS users. Conversion ads are ads that ask users to go to the advertiser's website and take an action. In politics, that can mean asking them to fill out a form, commit to vote or even to donate. According to the Voter Formation Project report, not only was a smaller slice of the group's conversion ads reaching iOS users than before, but the cost of driving people to the website also shot up to an average of $424 per conversion — more than three times what Musapatike said she would have expected during an off-year election.

"Having worked at Facebook itself for years, it's hard to surprise me," Musapatike said. "This kind of set off a panic. This is bad. I didn't think it would be this bad."

Since the 2016 election, when President Trump's campaign aggressively used conversion ads to fundraise, political advertisers of all stripes have leaned into this type of advertising as a core part of their digital strategies. Musapatike's organization, for one, was using conversion ads to send potential voters in Texas and Virginia to the Voter Formation Project website to make a plan to vote.

Facebook started warning advertisers that Apple's privacy changes would be a blow before Apple even rolled them out. Voter turnout groups like Musapatike's were no exception. "Our system is built to deliver ads to people who will find them most relevant, regardless of the device they are using," a Meta spokesperson said. "As we've said over the past year, Apple's changes make it harder to do that for some iOS users, which is negatively impacting small businesses, organizations and developers."

The idea that Facebook might not actually be showing these ads to iOS users at the same rate set off immediate alarm bells for Musapatike and her team. They began digging into the data and found that there was a substantial discrepancy between the percentage of conversion ads being delivered to Android users versus Apple users.

Before the iOS change, more than 60% of the group's conversion ads on Facebook were delivered to iOS devices. After the privacy update, that figure was just under 37%.

Image: Voter Formation Project

The drop-off in iOS impressions Musapatike's team observed was specific to conversion ads. Ads with other goals like, say, getting the broadest reach, were still being delivered to more iOS devices than Android. And even though companies like Snap are also struggling with Apple's privacy changes, the impact on iOS users wasn't appearing on other platforms. (The report acknowledges that could be because some platforms don't report impressions by device type.)

Image: Voter Formation Project

Still, even if other platforms were having the same issue, it wouldn't matter as much as it did on Facebook, Musapatike said. Facebook is where political advertisers had the most success with conversion ads before the iOS update, so it's also where a drop-off would hurt the most. "Facebook had, when I was there, roughly 90% of the conversion market of ads in politics, period," Musapatike said. "It was the most efficient place you could get donations or sign-ups."

'Let them click'

The question is: Why did this happen? The report accuses Facebook of "suppress[ing] delivery to devices that are more likely to block its ability to track the conversion action." Meta's spokesperson insisted that wasn't a deliberate decision on the company's part and said Facebook's automated ad system simply targets the users it predicts are most ripe for conversion on any given ad.

The problem is, those predictions are based on clicks — clicks that Facebook can't see clearly now on iOS, because it's not getting data back from users' devices. So the system appears to be overlooking them. That's not to say iOS users aren't receiving any ads; other types of ads that don't depend on third-party data from devices don't face the same problem.

Facebook, of course, would like to blame Apple for this issue, and it's true that the type of unbridled third-party tracking political advertisers have traditionally done is precisely the sort of thing Apple is trying to prevent. But the inability to see exactly who clicked through a conversion ad isn't itself an insurmountable challenge for advertisers, Musapatike said. In her case, even if there's no data exchanged between the device and Facebook, it wouldn't be so hard to figure out how many people filled out a form on her website after she ran a Facebook ad campaign asking people to do so.

But she can't do any of that if Facebook isn't showing iOS users her conversion ads to begin with. "If you're going to ask most advertisers, we'd say: 'Put our ads in front of these people and let them click,'" Musapatike said. "Even if you're not getting as much data back from these devices, that doesn't mean putting your ads in front of them or getting them to fill out your form isn't valuable."

Meta's spokesperson pointed to public statements the company has made both on its blogs and in earnings calls related to conversion issues in light of the iOS update. Specifically, the company has said it believes it's underreporting actual conversions by 15%, which may be leading to the higher costs per conversion that Musapatike saw. In other words, advertisers may actually be getting more conversions for their money. But that has little to do with whether Facebook is actually showing these ads to begin with.

The company has also recently introduced a new API for conversions that it said will "help businesses optimize ad targeting, decrease cost per action and measure results."

As for Musapatike, after realizing where conversion ads were falling short, her team began investing in lead generation ads on Facebook, which still enable Facebook users to fill out a form without ever leaving the platform. Those ads don't afford her the flexibility of directing people to her own website, but at least they're getting seen.

It's still unclear exactly how the ad changes impacted actual turnout in crucial states like Texas and Virginia. Those calculations take voter data that won't be available for months. But as the 2022 midterms draw closer, Musapatike's team is already reassessing where and how they'll spend their money. "I do not know the exact mechanism as to what's behind it," Musapatike said, but for advertisers like herself, at least, it means "if you're running a campaign where you want people to go to your website, it is less likely to happen through Facebook."

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