For advertisers, elections are big business.

Some experts are predicting 2016 will see roughly $1 billion spent on online political advertising in the US, and Facebook is positioning itself to capture as much of that spend as possible and hopefully capture some campaign dollars traditionally spent on television ads.

The Canadian 78-day election campaign that will culminate in a vote in 10 days is already is already the longest and one of the most expensive campaigns in more than a century, costing Elections Canada, the body that administers federal election, over $375 million, and under recently changed campaign finance laws allowing Canadian political parties to spend around $53 million each on the fight. No doubt when the final figures roll in, online and social media advertising will have captured a sizeable chunk of that spend.

Australia’s political advertising purchases are a lot harder to track, fluctuating in estimates of the 2010 election by the Gruen Nation program of $14 million in free-to-air television spots purchased to Liberals’ $12.7 million to The Conversation estimates of the 2013 election at ALP $4.04 million to Liberals’ $6.75 million.Facebook-New-Logo-2013

Facebook is already a behemoth in online advertising, projected to have $7.7 billion in total digital ad revenue in 2015 according to research company eMarketer, and no doubt hopes to cash in on record spends approaching for the 2016 US presidential election.

Facebook has already made structural changes to capitalise on the $1 billion estimated to be spent by campaigns online, doubling its government and politics team including a political ad sales group, a data communications team and employees devoted solely to both major parties since the 2012 election.

Some of the biggest changes to affect political campaigns on Facebook are the developments in video advertising.

Facebook had just over one billion views per day of streaming videos this time last year, and now it has four times the viewers.

In the last year, Facebook has introduced the video carousel, allowing users to cycle through several ads by the same advertiser in one sitting – also potentially allowing a political party to post a national-focussed ad followed by a local candidate’s message to maximise messaging cut-through with minimal clicks required.

Just last week at international Ad Week 2015, Facebook doubled down on the pitch to video advertisers launching Facebook-commissioned custom research conducted by Nielsen showing that: “when TV and Facebook were combined, advertisers saw a 19% increase in targeted reach versus TV alone, when Millennials were the target audience, incremental reach increased to 37% and people exposed to both TV and Facebook demonstrated a 3.2 percentage point increase in ad memorability linkage and a 22.7 percentage point increase in likeability linkage.”

Earlier this year, Facebook experimented with a new video ad buying method allowing advertiser to only pay for ads viewed for 10 seconds or more rather than as soon as they showed up in the feed – no doubt hoping to sway advertisers used to more traditional TV broadcast pricing structures.

Add to that the ability to conduct mobile polls connected with the advertising to assess cut-through and the capacity to embed a ‘call to action’ link at the end of the video to drive traffic to donor and party sites, Facebook has built a considerable arsenal of tools for the political advertiser.

In addition, Facebook is allowing US Parties to upload their voter files directly to Facebook, allowing advertisers to target potential voters with incredible precision (albeit while raising privacy concerns among civil liberties groups).

One of the most powerful developments this year to persuade political advertisers is the introduction of GRP, or gross ratings points, for video ad buying on Facebook. In television, 1 GRP is equal to 1 per cent of the target audience the advertiser wants to reach (not the total number of people who see the ads) with GRP rising when the ad is shown more frequently. Advertisers want to get the highest possible GRPs at the lowest possible cost, and Facebook is aiming to stop the split between traditional ad spending and the ‘digital ad bucket’ by making value more comparable.

What does that mean for Australia?

Although the political digital advertising spend in Australia is much lower than in the US, recently released Australian mobile statistics point to an increasing focus on reaching Australian voters where they spend most of their time: on their phones.

According to digital industry body the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) first mobile panel, measuring web-based and app-based browsing released this week,  12.5 million Australians accessed the internet on smartphones and 7.4 million Australians used tablets, with over 10.7 million Australians using video and streaming services on their smartphone and an average of over 33 hours per person per month spent browsing or using apps.

According to the latest IAB PWC online ad spend report from May, around one third of digital ad dollars in Australia are spent on mobile. According to that same report, the majority of time spent on tablets and mobile is on social media, and Australians spend four hours on watching audio and video on smartphone, and half that on tablet each month.

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Nielsen and IAB are currently at the halfway point before the expected release of the Digital Content Ratings in mid 2016, shifting to the long-awaited Digital Ratings Monthly reports earlier this year offering advertisers a “comprehensive trading currency.”

Currently data available doesn’t show in-app activity, but it still puts Facebook squarely at the top of Australia’s online mobile activity.

Last year, the Pew Research Centre found Facebook the second-most popular source for political and government news among American Internet users (explored in The Agenda Group’s analysis of last year’s Victorian election) and with such high Facebook usage in Australia there is no reason to think that it doesn’t play a similar role in Australia.

But how can political parties use Facebook to its full advantage?

As In his 2010 book The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick reported Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s articulation of the newsfeed’s guiding principle, as “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

A study posted this year in Science, a peer-reviewed online journal, found that the newsfeed algorithm decreased the visibility of ideologically “cross-cutting” news by 8 percent for liberals and 5 percent for conservatives in America, finding also that individual choice has more of a role in determining what content users see than other elements of the algorithm. Last year’s Pew research study found that only 42 percent of American social media users would share their political opinion online, and were much more willing if they thought their audience (friends) agreed with them.

What does that mean?

It means roughly that social media users are less likely to like, share or post newsfeed stories that are overtly political or partisan, limiting the way these posts are able to be viewed in their network’s feeds.

Unless social media posts are being used to galvanise Party faithful, posts should be issues-focussed and shareable to take advantage of Australians’ considerable social media and video streaming online time.

If videos are overtly branded with Party branding, they’re unlikely to get the same widespread reach, but can be use it to target and solidify existing supporters into more traditional campaign activity such as doorknocking through the use of the call to action function in videos allowing for one-click transition to community organizing sites.

Despite the fact that political parties exempt from Privacy Act and have little formal oversight, it seems from their privacy statements that both intend to be bound by provisions limiting disclosure of the extensive information in their databases to third parties like Facebook.

This doesn’t preclude the possibility of targeting within Facebook those who’ve indicated political preference, but limits the utility of new Facebook tools considerably compared to their US counterparts.

As to how Australian parties will seek to take advantage of Facebook in next year’s election, we’ll have to watch this space.