The entire landscape of digital advertising just changed for Catholic marketers.
What's Happening, and Why I Thought It Didn't Matter
On January 19, Facebook implemented new advertising targeting restrictions on a number of topics that "people may perceive as sensitive, such as health, race or ethnicity, political affiliation, religion or sexual orientation."
They had warned of these changes a few months ago, and in their outline, gave the example of no longer being able to target on the phrase "Catholic Church," for example.
Frankly, I wasn't worried. When I first started advertising through Facebook, I quickly learned that using the "Catholic Church" target tag was ineffectual for ads. There is a wide discrepancy among the kinds of people who "like" the Catholic Church on Facebook, and more often than not, instead of following my call to action, I found that we got a ton of comments, all of which were "Amen." Which is great! I'm glad people are praying. That wasn't really the point of the advertisement though.
What we began to do instead was focus on highly-targeted, well, targeting. We honed in on things devout Catholics actually like: Newman list colleges, major Catholic speakers and organizations, the rosary and titles of Mary, Catholic news organizations, Catholic schools and job titles, etc.
In my naïveté, I assumed that Facebook wouldn't know that these were religiously-affiliated and therefore they wouldn't be removed.
I was wrong.
The New Reality
I logged in to do some nerdy testing on January 20, and much to my dismay, all of our previous targeting parameters were gone. Job titles, Catholic colleges, titles of Mary, even obscure Catholic organizations. All gone.
Now I know your first reaction will be to think, of course! Facebook is trying to silence Catholics yet again. And while that could be their motivation, I actually doubt it in this case for two reasons:
I tested a few other non-Catholic targets that existed previously that would fall into the stated categories, and they also no longer exist. So it is not limited to just Catholicism.
Facebook stated that they did this in response to advisement from leaders of these kinds of organizations, who said that advertisers had been using that targeting to send hate advertising to these groups. While I'm not sure of the legitimacy of that, the fact remains: Facebook survives because of advertising. And this is going to be a huge hit to their finances.
Regardless, this all but rendered Facebook ads useless for Catholic organizations.
What Do We Do Now?
Now, if your organization is not trying to reach Catholics specifically, then these changes won't necessarily affect you. For example, we typically advise churches using advertising to do so with an evangelistic mindset; in that case, you'd want to be targeting on location rather than faith anyway.
But what alternatives do Catholic organizations have who do want to reach Catholics with their advertising? Here are a few things you can do:
First, Facebook ads will still have limited used for Catholic organizations. Though the targeting options no longer exist that would all but guarantee your ads are landing in front of a Catholic audience, the use of lookalike audiences can be helpful in simulating this approach. A lookalike audience takes your followers and finds people who are similar to them to which to show your ads, based on a percentage of broadness that you set. The problem here is that you aren't necessarily sure what these people look alike from - it could be their faith or it could be their spending habits, age, and a whole host of other characteristics.
Additionally, if you have the Facebook pixel installed on your website, you can still use retargeting ads very effectively.
Consider branching into alternate social media advertising platforms. Facebook and Instagram are linked, so these restrictions affect both platforms, but you could consider Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Pinterest advertising as another avenue for advertising with a similar targeting and budget setting structure.
Finally, we have long advised clients to take advantage of Catholic Ad Net, and now we will be doing so even more! Catholic Ad Net essentially acts as an ad distributor, taking your ad and placing it on a variety of Catholic-only sites, including news organizations and blogs. Similar to social media, it offers you the opportunity to set your own budget, but you don't have the same level of targeting parameters that you would find on social media. Additionally, the cost per click is often higher for Catholic Ad Net than you would find on social media sites, but much less cost than you would accrue trying to work with each of those organizations individually. It's definitely a method to try out if you were relying on Facebook ads previously for your organization!
As always, this is a good reminder: We don't own social media platforms. These platforms constantly change, and we cannot control them, even now from a paid perspective.
That doesn't mean you should stop using social media! But you need to be thinking: How can I connect with people on the platform so that I can connect with them off the platform?
The best way to do that? Use social media (and advertising!) to drive traffic to things you do control: your email list, website, podcast content, etc. From there, you can always continue to market to them - but you don't own your social media followers, and now, you can't even control your advertising targeting.
Nothing like God giving us all a good lesson in letting go of control, huh?
Need some help strategizing what to do for your organization amidst these advertising changes? Set up a consultation today, and we can help develop a strategy for how to continue to promote your organization for God's greater glory.