A Placemaking Journal

Snagging Gen-Y: Do Facebook ads work in public engagement?

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ’em down for your consideration.

For those looking to expand public engagement and collaborative process at the community level, this week presents a curious convergence of news and ideas. Setting the stage was CNU20’s “Charrettes and the Next Generation of Public Involvement,” an afternoon breakout session exploring a fairly provocative (for New Urbanists) question: In this era of limited resources, is the traditional charrette still a viable model of engagement and collaborative design and, if not, can it be retooled for relevance?

While founding CNU leaders like Andrés Duany and Gianni Longo debated obstacles and cost efficiencies and PlaceMakers Ben Brown and Hazel Borys drilled down on the politics of getting people to work together, newly elected CNU board member Eliza Harris spoke for the altogether different goals of the Millennial generation (also commonly known as Generation Y) — those born (roughly) between 1982 and 2000.

Not surprisingly, much of what she said involved Millennials’ desire to organize and get hands on with tactical urban initiatives, and the strength of social media to connect, inform and compel action across that demographic. In particular, she touched on the value of Facebook ads, which are highly affordable and can be customized and targeted in almost any way imaginable.

In short, if you’re doing outreach, getting your message in front of Millennials is not a difficult proposition.

At the time, I considered it some pretty solid, straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth advice and it reinforced my already existing belief in social media’s public process potential. But it wasn’t too long before reality once again stepped in, clouding the issue and reminding me that the devil, as always, is in the details.

For example, just a few days later, General Motors announced it was dropping its use of Facebook ads, concluding they had “little or no impact” on the people they were trying to reach. Interesting, for sure, but applicable? I can already hear the completely reasonable urbanist response: This is a company trying to sell $30,000 automobiles to a generation not all that interested in cars. Of course the ads don’t work.

Fair point, so let’s set our sights a little lower. Say, in the $15 commitment range, which brings us to this story on NPR yesterday. Their intent, specifically, was to determine whether or not Facebook ads work, so they did an experiment with a pop-up pizza joint in New Orleans. The results, even after adjusting their targeting midstream? Zilch. Yes, the ad went viral, getting twice the click-throughs of a typical ad. Yes, it showed up on local Facebook pages more than 700,000 times, essentially blanketing the city in both reach and frequency. But despite its stellar performance in all the go-to social media metrics, their $240 investment in the ad yielded a grand total of ten bucks, and that was from a donation. Not a sale.

Millennials, by their own estimation, don’t need a car. But they do need to eat. If getting in front of pretty much every Millennial in town with the promise of a damn tasty pie fails to sell a single pizza — perhaps the most popular youth-oriented munchable of all time — what hope is there for compelling action towards street design, zoning reform or, God forbid, something insufferably dry like a comprehensive plan initiative?

Oh, details. You taunt me so!

But just as it’s misguided to say social media cures everything, it’s equally so to claim it cures nothing. The answer, once again, is in the messy middle ground.

The mistake, especially as it relates to public process, is focusing too much on who you’re reaching and not enough on the particular stories that define them. Ben Brown and I have been talking for some time about communities and their existing stories. Your job, when reaching out to them, is crafting your story entirely in the context of theirs, with an eye towards clarity and simplicity. Find the connecting points, the shared context, the common values. That’s how you compel action.

Maybe young people don’t get passionate about pizza, but they do get passionate about biking. Or transit. Or local food. Or launching an independent business. Or creating more interesting places to gather, mingle and collaborate.

When doing community outreach, that’s your route of greatest potential returns for Facebook ads. You need to slice and dice your audience not just by age and geography but by passion — by story — then tailor each message accordingly.

“Build a better block.” “Make way for biking.” “Join the urban farm initiative.” “Crowdsource Main Street vacancies.”

That’s when Millennials show up. Not because they’ve been made aware of what you’re doing, but because it’s an extension of what they’re doing.

Community planning can be a vehicle for advancing the things that Generation-Y is passionate about. But only if you help them see the connections. Which means it’s not just about getting the word out.

It’s about getting the right word out.

–Scott Doyon

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