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FWIW Virginia: The Best Things in Life Are Free (Growing Social Media Followings via Organic Content)

Spotlight: HD 30 - Ann Ridgeway (D) v Nick Freitas (R)


From FWIW Virginia:

When many people hear “digital,” what they really hear is “social media.” Almost every campaign in Virginia up and down the ballot has an organic social media presence of some sort. While it’s difficult to truly expand and engage an audience without paid content, organic engagement is still an important (and most importantly, free!) way for campaigns to reach supporters.

Which campaigns are doing the best at engaging and expanding their social media audiences through organic content? And is it really impossible to grow your audience through organic posts alone? We take a look in this week’s edition of FWIW Virginia. But first…

2019 by the numbers

We’ve recently moved over to a new automated tool to track digital spending. Readers may notice some small discrepancies in our total spend numbers, but we believe this data will be more accurate and sustainable in the long-run.

Here’s how Facebook spending by Republican and Democratic party committees and candidates in the most competitive districts compares since the primary election.

Here are the five biggest Facebook spenders in Virginia from July 28 – August 3.

…and here’s some of the creative from the top Facebook spenders in Virginia this week. Long-time Republican Delegate Chris Jones, who we noted in an earlier edition of FWIW Virginia had never created a campaign social media account before, finally created a campaign Facebook page in May. In recent weeks his campaign has ramped up its Facebook spending, running a series of persuasion ads around issues like affordable higher education and supporting the foster care system to create a moderate profile in a new district.

Days until the general election: 89

Deep Dive: The Best Things in Life Are Free ?
While only a minority of campaigns at the state and local level spend significant amounts on paid Facebook ads, almost every state and local campaign has their own Facebook page that hosts organic content. Due to recent changes in Facebook’s platform, only a tiny fraction of people who like a page will actually see its organic posts. However, large organic followings lend credibility to campaigns and give them the opportunity to maintain and grow their base for donations and canvassing shifts!

For both Democrats and Republicans, there’s a huge gap between the “haves and have-nots” when it comes to their organic audiences.

On the Democratic side, human rights activist and author Qasim Rashid has the largest Facebook following thanks to a pre-existing audience from before he announced his State Senate bid. The dropoff from Rashid’s following is steep – Delegate Chris Hurst has roughly half the number of Rashid’s page likes and other Democrats have an even smaller fraction. In general, we see that most of the top Democrats on Facebook have continued to grow their followings since the June primary.

On the Republican side, Delegate Nick Freitas, who will not make the ballot in his district because he was too lazy to fill out his paperwork ?, has the largest Facebook following thanks to his failed 2018 US Senate bid. There’s also a large dropoff in following from Freitas to other Republicans, but it’s notable that most top Republicans have bled page likes since their June primary – potentially indicative of a failure to engage their existing audiences.
The biggest outlier across both Democratic and Republican campaigns is Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, whose campaign has managed to gain over 2,000 page likes since the June primary, although it’s worth noting that her campaign has maintained a robust paid presence on Facebook.

Using CrowdTangle, a content discovery and social monitoring platform, we compiled data on House of Delegates and State Senate campaigns to see whether or not campaigns can grow their organic audiences through organic content alone. We found that while it may be possible for campaigns to grow their Facebook followings from organic content alone, it’s tough to do quickly, especially for candidates without large pre-existing followings.

This scatterplot looks at how often House of Delegates and State Senate campaigns posted on Facebook between the primary and June 6th (in terms of average posts per day) and compared it to the post-primary growth of their pages to see whether more organic engagement leads to a bigger audience.

While there is a small, loose correlation between posting more on Facebook and page growth, simply engaging through organic content isn’t enough to grow quickly. And for first-time candidates running without a pre-existing following, growing quickly is key for building a following large enough to be leveraged for votes, donations, and volunteer shifts.

We highlighted the top three campaigns in terms of page growth and all of them have had at least some form of paid presence on Facebook since the June primary. In general, the candidates with the largest page growth had either a paid presence, a large pre-existing following, or a viral/controversial moment. Most campaigns don’t come in with a pre-existing following and aren’t able to capture a viral moment, so paid advertising is the most viable option for most campaigns to grow their social media following.

Spotlight: HD 30 – Ann Ridgeway (D) v Nick Freitas (R)
For our district spotlight this week, we’re taking a look at HD 30, where Democrat Ann Ridgeway will have the ballot all to herself in this deep-red district. She’ll be facing incumbent Delegate Nick Freitas, who will run a write-in campaign because he forgot to turn in his paperwork on time.

HD 30 is a Culpepper-based district that sprawls across Orange, Culpepper, and Madison Counties. The district is reliably Republican at the state and federal level, voting for Trump 61-34 in 2016, for Gillespie 61-38 in 2017, and Stewart 57-41 in 2018.

Freitas has represented the district since 2015. In 2015, he was unopposed in the general election, and in 2017 he crushed his Democratic opponent 62-38 despite being outspent nearly 2 to 1. This year, however, the district is near toss-up territory since Freitas has to run as a write-in candidate.

Despite having just $4,211 cash on hand as of the June 30 filing deadline, Freitas spent almost twice that amount on Facebook ads in the past week, indicating that his campaign has kicked its fundraising into gear as it prepares for a competitive election. So far, his campaign has exclusively run list-acquisition ads around red meat surveys or petitions.


Democratic candidate Ann Ridgeway has a small paid presence on Facebook with less than $100 in total spend. Her campaign is focusing on persuasion, running a series of video ads around affordable healthcare and protecting families.


Thanks for reading and make sure to sign up for weekly updatesfollow us on Twitter andemail us with ideas of what you’d like us to dive into next. Just a programming note, we’ll be taking a week off next Thursday, but will be back with fresh insights August 22nd!

– The team at ACRONYM

P.S. Here’s a sign-up link for our national FWIW newsletter and you can find today’s issue here.


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