Should You Buy Facebook Ads for Public Outreach?


Facebook’s still a useful tool for catching Jimmy Fallon videos and keeping tabs on friends’ birthdays, vacations and political views. But it’s not so helpful for general communications. Unless, of course, we pay for it with Facebook ads.

I won’t spend time rehashing how Facebook’s computer algorithm squashes our ability to reach people. Let’s just own that typical Facebook posts don’t work all that well. There are exceptions, of course, but I’m guessing many of us have questioned our professional Facebook use over the past few years.

We have certainly done that at King County, Wash., and we have decided to move on. No, we’re not ditching our Facebook pages entirely. Our teams still use Facebook, but I’ve reiterated that no one should be stressing out about this and to focus on customer service more than posting press releases. That’s less time-consuming and far more valuable.

What we’re doing instead is buying Facebook ads for public outreach.

This graphic illustrates how Facebook’s targeting feature helps us connect with typically hard-to-reach audiences, such as residents whose primary language is not English.

Facebook Ads for public outreach.

First, let me say that I am very sensitive to the criticism of using taxpayer money for Facebook ads. I pay taxes, too, and I don’t want to read that headline in the local paper. But I’m also a digital media expert who knows that Facebook ads work, and they are super cheap.

Second, we’re not just buying ads for the sake of buying ads or boosting posts simply because we want a few extra views. That’s not good government. Rather, we are carefully targeting groups of residents based on geographic location and languages.

Because Facebook ads can reach people by zip code and in languages other than English, we are seeing more project-based engagement. Facebook ads allow staff with limited resources to get more/better survey responses, drive traffic to project websites, and supplement outreach efforts such as print materials and in-person public meetings.

For example, King County Elections bought ads last year connecting Chinese and Vietnamese speaking residents with elections information in those languages, respectively. Our executive services division bought ads in Spanish to gather survey responses on the design of a children and family justice center that was approved by voters.

Facebook Ads for public outreach.

Resources are tight and we must be good stewards of public money. But we’re also responsible for connecting with all of our residents, not just the privileged few. Facebook ads allow us to reach audiences we have traditionally struggled to communicate with and to do so in a way that is technologically convenient for them. It’s not the only thing we’re doing, but it’s a great supplement to existing public outreach efforts.

Many local governments spend decent money in the name of public outreach—hosting meetings, printing posters, hiring consultants—but with Facebook ads we can actually save money while connecting with even more people, especially in underserved communities.

We’re still hosting public meetings and printing mailers, but our goal is to cut down on the expensive public outreach costs while expanding our reach significantly.

Facebook ads for public outreach are cost effective and worth exploring.

Tips: Getting started with Facebook ads

  1. Select the start/end dates of your campaign.
  2. Budget—a little bit of money goes a long way on Facebook ads.
  3. Decide how to allocate the funds—$50/day over 5 days for a $250 budget, for example.
  4. Where do you want to link people from the ad? Surveys, project websites, video presentations, etc. Don’t put extra clicks in front of people. If you only need survey feedback, link your audience straight to the survey instead of a project page.
  5. Choose a photo—it must follow Facebook’s 20% rule, meaning no more than 20% of your image can include text on top of it. Test your picture here.
  6. Write compelling copy in plain language. There’s a 25-character limit for the headline, 90 characters for the body, and 200 characters for the link description. That’s not much!
  7. Choose a call to action button—you can select from Learn More, Sign Up, Download, and many others. Or you can leave this section blank.
  8. Target your audience—you can reach people by location, interests, languages, and more.

Please feel free to email me if you have any questions about Facebook ads at King County. We are very careful but very proud of the work we are doing.

Derek Belt is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Victor Romero

Mr. Belt – An outstanding overview. Your set of “Tips” is a real winner! And, among the many spot-on observations you make in this blog, my favorite is: “…focus on customer service more than posting press releases.” Keep up the good work, Sir! VR