Opinion: Digital marketing is under-utilized in EA

by JSWinchell4 min read21st Jun 202124 comments

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In this post I will make the case that digital marketing is under-utilized by EA orgs as well as provide some example use cases. 

My hope is that this post leads to EA orgs testing the below or similar strategies. 

A large part of what Effective Altruism is trying to do is to change people’s beliefs and behaviors. Digital advertising is one tool for achieving this goal. The fact that corporations, governments, and nonprofits repeatedly invest millions of dollars in digital marketing programs is evidence of their efficacy.  

A couple notes:

  • I work at Google/YouTube helping large advertisers run Google and YouTube Ads. For that reason this post does not touch on Facebook/Instagram//Twitter/TikTok, but I am sure there are large opportunities there as well.
  • This post is focused on paid advertising.
  • Cost estimates are based on previous experience and industry benchmarks, but costs vary based on the geography, season, tactic etc.
  • If you plan on running any of the strategies described below, please reach out to me so we can coordinate with other charities that are planning on running similar strategies.
  • If your EA org would like to explore running a digital marketing campaign please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at j.s.winchell@gmail.com.

Search Ads

Every year, millions of people ask Google questions related to charity, poverty, animal welfare,  AI safety, etc. If we can direct those people to EA websites, they will get EA answers to their questions.

Google gives registered charities $10K/month in free advertising credits. Of a sample of ~10 EA charities, only one was fully using this Google Ads Grant. 

With a little extra knowledge, spending the Google Ads Grant becomes much easier than described in previous posts (1, 2).

If you work at an EA org and would like help spending your full Google Ads Grant please fill out this survey.  

Image/display Ads

If your organization has a target audience and you know of websites that audience visits, display ads could be a very cost-effective way for your charity to achieve its goals.

Example use case: Founders Pledge wants to spread the word about their pledge. They identify three websites frequented by founders and advertise on those websites. A standard benchmark for an image/display ad is $2 per 1,000 impressions (an impression is when an ad is served). This strategy would break even at one pledge per 1,000,000,000 impressions served. (Assumes advertising cost of $2 per 1,000 impressions and an average pledge size of $2M, which is based on ~$3B pledged and ~1,500 pledgers). 

While the optimal number of impressions served will be much less than 1,000,000,000, it is very likely higher than 0. 

In addition to sending founders to the Founders Pledge website, this tactic would also increase awareness of the pledge thereby making it easier for their outreach team to sign on new members. 

Video Ads

YouTube Ads are a powerful and inexpensive way to deliver visual and audio messages to targeted audiences. 

You can target users using any combination of the following:

  • Geography (radius targeting, zip/postal code, state)
  • Household income (top 10%, 11-20%, etc.)
  • Search history on Google and YouTube (e.g. users that searched for “best charity” or “factory farming” in the last 30 days)
  • Types of websites visited (e.g. users that have visited the websites of large nonprofits)
  • YouTube channels being watched at the time the impression serves (contextual targeting)
  • Demographics (age, gender)

Example use cases:

  • Org A wants to boost enrollment in EA University groups. They have a member student record a simple 6 second selfie video inviting students to the group. They target 18-24 year-olds within a 10 mile radius of their target universities. They could expect to pay ~$0.01 per person reached.
  • Org B wants their charity to be the first charity that comes to people’s minds come Giving Tuesday. They target the top 5 US zip codes by income and layer on a Household Income (top 10%) audience to ensure they are reaching high net worth individuals. They could expect to pay ~$0.01 per person if they keep their ads under 6 seconds, which amounts to ~$400 to target everyone in the top 5 US zip codes by wealth. (This is not a typo, it's just insanely cheap!)
  • Org C thinks their message would resonate with “analytical people.” They compile a list of websites that “analytical people” visit and then show their YouTube ads to people who visit those types of sites.
  • Org D is running a corporate campaign to end cages for egg-laying hens. They recently had a celebrity endorse their campaign. They want to capitalize on this endorsement and run an ad featuring the celebrity that targets the relevant geography.
  • Org E wants to promote The Precipice. It distills the message down to between 15 seconds and 5 minutes and targets users within 10 miles of prestigious universities who frequent technology or science websites.
  • Org F wants to advocate for increased R+D funding for cellular agriculture ahead of a vote in the state legislature and they know the vote will come down to two politicians. They advertise in just the two districts that those politicians represent, asking voters to call their representative.
  • Org G wants to advocate for fair labelling laws for plant-based meat ahead of a vote in the state legislature. They suspect libertarians and environmentalists support their cause so they develop libertarian messaging to show to readers of libertarian media and environmental messaging to show to readers of environmentalist media.
  • Org H wants to elect an EA to the state legislature. They fund professional advertising for the candidate’s race.

Closing thoughts

The financial cost of testing these programs is small and the potential payoff is large. If you’re interested in running a test please don’t hesitate to reach out!

Thank you in advance for your thoughts and feedback.

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25 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:06 PM
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I think it'd be worthwhile to try advertising longtermist websites and books to people (targeting by interests/location to the largest extent possible). I think it's been tried a bit (e.g. at the tens of thousands of dollars scale) years ago, and it was already nearly at the threshold for cost-effectiveness. And funding availability has more than doubled since then. What I don't know is what further experiments have been run in the last two years...

I've looked a bit into this.

I think there's a lot of potential value here. On the other hand, such work would have to be fairly carefully.

A large publicity push to get people into the longtermist community could easily backfire, similar to the problem of expanding the EA community too quickly. The specific longtermist concerns (AGI risks, biosafety risks) could also be net harmful if presented sloppily.

Quality discussion and targeting would help with these concerns, but right now I think only a few potential people would actually be trusted and capable to do such work.

If anyone is reading this and would be interested in pursuing this, let me know, and I'll try to figure out the right other people to contact. I imagine this could be a good fit for a new project, but it would have to be done with the right team.

I would say though that if a promising team was interested, and if they were trusted by the main longtermists/funders, it seems like a very promising opportunity for funding.

If the intervention is more, "We should just have some people with domain expertise in digital marketing to help EA organizations", that's much easier to integrate. 

I have domain expertise in digital marketing and would love to help EA organizations. I'm not qualified to weigh in on the questions of messaging or how far-reaching the campaign should be, but once those things are figured out I can tell you the best way to use YouTube and Google Search to accomplish your goals. 

What would you say is the threshold for cost-effectiveness?

Ultimately it's the funder who'll judge that. But if I had all of the donors' funds, maybe I'd pay ~$1B to double the size of the EA movement (~3k->~6k) while preserving its average quality?

Interesting, so that comes to a cost-effectiveness of $333,333 per highly engaged EA, which doesn't seem that cost-effective to me.  $33,333 or $3,333  per person (so $100M or $10M to get 3k more EAs) sound like better numbers to me, and I think those numbers are actually quite doable.

CEA's Community Building Grants seem like they could approach the $33,333 or $3,333 per person number, though it's not that highly scalable.

For me, the takeaway is that the actual cost of generating interest in EA (Brian's $4 cost per graduated EA fellow from below) is significantly below our little group's estimates of what an engaged EA is worth ($3K -$30K as noted above).

I think everyone would agree an engaged EA is worth more than $4. 

If someone is reading this who would know how to scale FB ads for EA university fellowships that seems like an extremely high impact thing to do. 

Thanks very much for your post! I think this a really interesting idea and it's really useful to learn from your experience in this area. 

What would you think of the concern that these types of ads would be a "low fidelity" way of spreading EA that could risk misinforming people about EA?   I think from my experience community building, it's really useful to be able to describe and discuss EA ideas in detail, and that there are risks to giving someone an incorrect view of EA. These risks include someone being critical of what they believe EA is, and spreading this critique, as well as discouraging them from getting involved when they may have done so at a later time. The risk is probably lower if someone clicks on a short ad that takes them to say effectivealtruism.com where the various ideas are carefully explained and introduced. But someone who only saw the ads and didn't click could end up with an incorrect view of EA.

I would be interested to see discussion about what would and wouldn't make a good online ad for EA e.g. how to intrigue people without being inaccurate or over-sensationalizing parts of EA. 

There might also be an interesting balance between how much interest we want to someone to have shown in EA-related topics before advertising to them. E.g. every university student in the US is probably too wide a net, but everyone who's searching "effective altruism" or "existential risk" are probably already on their way to EA resources without the need for an advert.

I know lots of university EA groups make use of Facebook advertising and some have found this useful to promote events. I don't know whether Google/Youtube ads allow targeting at the level of students of a specific university?

Thanks so much for your thoughts Robert!
 

"What would you think of the concern that these types of ads would be a "low fidelity" way of spreading EA that could risk misinforming people about EA?   I think from my experience community building, it's really useful to be able to describe and discuss EA ideas in detail, and that there are risks to giving someone an incorrect view of EA. These risks include someone being critical of what they believe EA is, and spreading this critique, as well as discouraging them from getting involved when they may have done so at a later time. The risk is probably lower if someone clicks on a short ad that takes them to say effectivealtruism.com where the various ideas are carefully explained and introduced. But someone who only saw the ads and didn't click could end up with an incorrect view of EA."

-> Great points!  A couple thoughts.

  • In most cases I imagine the ads would be promoting a single org/group/book/event vs EA as a movement/philosophy. I think this makes it much easier to be high fidelity. (e.g. promoting deworming initiatives doesn't require a thorough overview of the ins and outs of EA. )
  •  Many ads don't have to get into detail at all in order to be successful. E.g. a 6 second video of a student saying "I started a student group to help students do good, check it out!" isn't actually saying anything about EA that could be right or wrong. As another example, if you see an image that says "Founders Pledge" on a website frequented by founders, the ad itself isn't saying anything about the org that would be right or wrong except for the fact that Founders Pledge exists ad spends money on advertising. 

"I would be interested to see discussion about what would and wouldn't make a good online ad for EA e.g. how to intrigue people without being inaccurate or over-sensationalizing parts of EA. "

-> I agree! I'm excited to start testing

"I know lots of university EA groups make use of Facebook advertising and some have found this useful to promote events. I don't know whether Google/Youtube ads allow targeting at the level of students of a specific university?"

-> Yep! We could only target 18-24 year-olds within Xkm of the university. Part of the reason I expect this would be beneficial above and beyond the FB ads is (1) it would be video + sound vs just an image which I think is standard for FB and (2) it would be incredibly cheap (you could reach ~1,000 students for $10). I would be very interested in helping interested university groups with this. 

I didn't know Google/YouTube ads could be that specific. Reaching 1,000 students for $10 seems really cost-effective. Though I think a 6 second video of a student talking about their EA group doesn't seem like the best idea to get people to join the EA group. Maybe a one-minute video  (with a good 6-second hook) would be better, in case some people find the ad intriguing enough to watch the whole length.

Agreed - I am guessing it would be incredibly cost-effective. I'm hoping to test this with a few student groups this upcoming fall, we'll see if it works. 

Possibly the 1 minute video would be better than the 6 second. The good news is it's easily testable :)

This sounds like a great idea and potentially something that CEA etc should be doing to help new groups to start.  One of the biggest challenges is getting the required initial awareness and critical mass and word of mouth/Facebook posting only gets you so far.

I think this post will be valuable to some EA orgs, so I strongly upvoted this. I also like the inclusion of various use cases. 

I think EA organizations or local groups should also try using Facebook advertising, and RobertHarling talks about this too below, though I don't think there are free advertising credits for this. We in EA Philippines have used Facebook ads to get more people to sign up for our events and intro to EA fellowships very cost-effectively, though our high cost-effectiveness might be because ad prices are generally lower in the Philippines. People can read more about how we used FB advertising here.

Thanks Brian! I'd love to hear what your cost per signup was, feel free to send me a direct message if you prefer :)

I wrote about it in the forum post I linked: 

Our cost per attendee using FB ads was around $1-5 per person, depending on the event. Generally, we liked the type of people who came to our events - they were friendly and open-minded. However, only a few of them would be truly interested in EA and be willing to get more engaged in it. In 2020, we still expect to use FB ads, but we know to expect that only a handful of them will be the ones that will truly be engaged and interested in EA.

What's not in that article is how we used FB ads to recruit fellows for one of our student groups' intro fellowships this year. We got ~6 people to sign up (who otherwise wouldn't have heard of the fellowship) from $20 of FB ads, so that's $3.33 / person, and 5 of them ended up graduating from the fellowship (attending at least 6 out of 10 weeks). So using FB ads to advertise a fellowship seems a lot more cost-effective than just advertising an event.

Nice! That seems like great value for money. As per the comment above, I think that FB/google advertising should be standard practice for EA movement building groups. It also seems like something that we have a centralised support for (e.g., CEA can do it for you or guide you through the process), rather than something that movement builders need to learn themselves.

$4 per graduated EA fellow is absolutely incredible!  

If anyone knows someone at CEA who would be interested in hearing about this please reach out. 

Yeah. I think a lot of EA fellowships though are facilitator-constrained, not participant-constrained. Possibly ads could still be used to increase the quality of the participant pool, but the value of that is less clear. 

I know people at CEA, and 2 of our student groups will write a fellowship retrospective soon. We'll include this bit formally there, and I can link that to CEA or publicize that to other community builders. This is so that groups that are participant-constrained can use ads more.

But yeah as a broader point, ads could be used to market events or the group itself. Given the amount of karma of this post, I'm pretty sure CEA has already seen it, I just don't know what their thoughts about it are. But I expect they're already quite interested in the value of using paid ads. I remembered now that I wrote a part in EA Hub's resources for group organizers on advertising events before about the potential value of using paid ads. Maybe this post should be linked into that guide. I'll message Catherine Low from CEA if she would like to include it, or reference it in the July Groups newsletter.

I'll just add a data point and mention that I also used Facebook marketing when for building an EA uni group. I didn't track the ROI (or recall it now if I did) but I thought it was effective enough to do a few times and recommend to my successors. 

This post is now podcast-famous. I read it in full HERE, including most of the comments, adding a few of my own.

Brian Tomasik wrote an article about Google search ads here. You can get up to 40k per month if you meet certain criteria over time. 

Unfortunately the $40K/month program has been deprecated, but thanks for sharing!