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Beginners’ guide to paid social media advertising

October 21, 2021 #How to
Beginners’ guide to paid social media advertising
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This article is part of the Cast From Clay How-to webinar series for policy organisations. Watch Aidan run through the 6 steps to setting up a paid social media campaign in this recorded presentation.

In the last 5 or 6 years it has become harder to get cut-through with organic social media content alone.

This is in part a product of the sheer volume of content that is published. But it’s also due to changes to the major social media platforms’ algorithms, as they’ve sought to increase engagement and monetise their platforms through ad revenue.

And yet, very few policy organisations use paid social as a tactic – and the few who do use it, often don’t use it well.

So let’s explore the basics.

What do we mean by ‘paid’?

First, let’s be clear about what we mean by advertising. Paid social is the promotion of digital content through advertising on social media. There are different types, typically categorised as:

  • ‘display’ ads (aka banner ads), which look like ads; and
  • ‘native’ ads (aka sponsored content), which look like organic content.

For policy organisations, we tend to recommend using native ads, and this blog post will focus on these – particularly for Twitter and LinkedIn, since these are probably the most commonly-used platforms by the policy community.

But it’s worth noting that the logic of setting up paid campaigns is broadly the same for display ads, and for most other digital platforms.

What is the case for paid?

Paid is a no-brainer for us, and this is why:

  • Paid helps you reach new audiences: it takes your content beyond your immediate community, but also allows you to target very specific audiences.
  • Paid is effective: it can really give your content reach by an order of magnitude – quite simply, it works.
  • Paid is good value for money: social media ads are very cost-effective compared to traditional forms of advertising (see study by Asset Digital).

6 steps to set up a campaign

So now we’ve made the case, how do we set this up?

Each platform provides you with an interface where you can set up your own campaigns. Some platforms are easier to use than others, so we recommend you plan a number of things in advance, before even opening your browser.

The following 6 steps will help you do this up-front thinking.

0. Set up your paid account

If you’ve never run a paid campaign before, you will need to set up a paid account, tied to your organisation’s social media channel. You will only need to do this once – follow these instructions for Twitter and LinkedIn.

Three things to think about before you start:

  • The payment method: you will need to tie your ad account to a payment method – typically a credit card – so the platform can charge you for the ad space. So arm yourself with the card details before you start.
  • The currency: you will need to define the currency. Note that on many platforms, once you have set the currency you cannot change it. So think about the card you tie to the account, the country your head office is in, etc.
  • The location: you will need to set a location for your ad account. This will impact things like if you schedule a campaign to launch at a set time, or if you set a daily budget limit.

1. Define your objective

Once you’ve set up your ad account, you can start running campaigns. And the first thing to think about is, what is your campaign trying to achieve?

This is not specific to social media ads – it’s just good communications. So think about who you want to target, and how you want to influence them. Being clear about this will help you with the next step…

2. Pick your platform(s)

Which is to pick the platform or platforms you’re going to be promoting content on. In making this decision, ask yourself:

  • Which platforms do those audiences you’re trying to reach use? Experience will help on that front, but you should be evaluating this on an ongoing basis.
  • What are each platform’s targeting capabilities? Each platform allows you to target ads at their users based on a number of criteria which are specific to the platform. So familiarise yourself with each platform’s targeting capabilities, it will help you pick the right channel.
  • What’s your budget? Some platforms are more expensive than others (eg, LinkedIn is typically more expensive than Twitter or Facebook), so your budget may also be a factor.

3. Set your campaign goal

When you are setting up your campaign, platforms will ask you what the goal of your campaign is, for two reasons:

  1. They can optimise the campaign accordingly if they know what matters to you.
  2. Your campaign goal will also be the basis on which they charge you.

There are a few differences between platforms, but they all offer broadly similar goals. We’ve provided some examples here from Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

Ask yourself:

  • Which of the platforms’ campaign goals offers the best KPI against your objective?
  • What metric will speak most to your internal stakeholders? (And in the medium term, do you need to educate them about these metrics?)

4. Set targeting criteria

Each platform has its own set of targeting criteria. We’ve provided some of the key, most relevant ones here for Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, as an example. But there are many more for each platform.

You will need to define which criteria will provide the best opportunity to target your audience with the least amount of wastage. For this, you will need to find that sweet spot:

  • If your targeting is too broad: your audience will be vast and your budget is unlikely to reach the people who matter.
  • If your targeting is too narrow: the platform might not allow your campaign to run, or if it does you might not get the results you want in the time you have.

5. Define the creative

There are a number of different formats to choose from, depending on which platforms you use. Check which ones are available to you, and then decide.

Ask yourself:

  • How complex is the message?
  • Do you have time to create a new asset?
  • Do you have existing assets?

6. Set budget & duration

The budget question is by far the most common question we get asked. Platforms generally give you quite a lot of control over your spending:

  • You can set a maximum budget for your entire campaign.
  • You can set a maximum daily budget.
  • For more advanced users, you can manually set how much you want to pay per action (per click for example, per video view, etc) – this is called setting bid levels.

The scientific way to calculate a paid campaign budget is:

Size of the audience you want to reach


Number of times you want to reach them


Expected cost per action

This formula quickly becomes very complicated because of the number of moving parts. Which share of your audience is realistic to reach? How do you know how many times you need to reach them? How can you guess the cost per action when it depends on externalities like competition?

At this point, my recommendation on this tends to be, leave the maths for when you have one or two campaigns under your belt to benchmark against. For now, your priority is to get used to how social media ads work, and what those variables are. So just dive in and experiment.

TIP: Budgeting your first campaign

For those looking for a starting point, this is our recommendation:

  • If you need to bid for the budget internally, position it as a pilot or test campaign.
  • Run it in one or two markets, no more.
  • Set a maximum budget – start with, for example: $100-$200 per market for Twitter, and $500-$1,000 per market for LinkedIn.
  • Run the campaign for a week, and set a daily budget – for example $20 a day.
  • Select automated bids.
  • Analyse the results, and use this campaign as a benchmark.
  • Build from there.


Further reading

There is so much more to say about social media advertising. If you want to read more, you can browse through these useful guides:

Image credit: Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash.

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