Wait until the conservative talk shows get ahold of this one: The US State Department spent $630,000 buying Facebook fans via ad campaigns between 2011 and March 2013, then ended up with very low engagement rates when the campaigns ended.
The discovery, first reported by the Washington Examiner, comes via an Inspector General’s office (IG) audit that examined the State Department’s Bureau of Information Programs.
In its 57-page report, the IG’s office says the State Department spent about $630,000 on two Facebook advertising campaigns aimed at increasing the number of fans of some of its English and foreign language pages. The campaigns were part of a “push to expand the bureau’s presence on social media and other digital platforms.” As the report explains, there was internal debate about the spending:
Many in the bureau criticize the advertising campaigns as “buying fans” who may have once clicked on an ad or “liked” a photo but have no real interest in the topic and have never engaged further. Defenders of advertising point to the difficulty of finding a page on Facebook with a general search and the need to use ads to increase visibility.
On the bright side, the IG’s report says the ad campaigns worked. Kinda sorta.
The State Department’s English-language pages each went from about 100,000 fans to more than 2.5 million by March 2013, and the foreign-language pages had accumulated from 68,000 to 450,000 fans by the same date.
But there’s an asterisk on those numbers. Even though the English pages had 2.5 million fans, engagement was just over two percent and “many postings had fewer than 100 comments or shares.”
Ahhhh, so it’s the age-old debate that faces all marketers: Is it better to have a lot of fans with low engagement rates, or less fans that are more engaged?
The Inspector General’s office has an answer for the State Department. It should
…reduce spending and increase strategic impact by focusing its advertising not on raising overall fan numbers or general engagement statistics but on accomplishing specific PD [public diplomacy] goals.
Focus on goals, not fans. Good advice and perhaps surprising that it’s needed by an administration that’s been praised repeatedly for its social media prowess.
Postscript: See our follow-up story, US State Department: After Audit, We’ve Cut Our Facebook Spend By 90%.