Earlier this year, one of Beekeeper’s clients was in the middle of a large online advertising campaign when they noticed something strange: ad clicks, which had been gradually increasing for several weeks, suddenly skyrocketed. Over two days, total spend (determined by the number of times someone clicks on an ad) jumped nearly 400 percent. Nothing had changed — messaging, ad copy, and issue status all remained untouched.

Flappy Bird

Digging through the analytics, we discovered that the ads had started appearing on something called Flappy Bird, a mobile game that, overnight, became so popular its creator removed it from the Apple App and Google Play stores because it was too addictive. The game players, however, weren’t interested in the issue; the clicks were accidental — the product of in-game mistaps. To avoid spending money on non-targets, we created a location exclusion that prevented ads from appearing in the game. Almost immediately spend dropped to pre-Bird levels.

Theirs wasn’t the only campaign affected. According to the game’s developer, Flappy Bird earned $50,000/day from in-app advertisements, much of which likely came from similar sources — advertisers unaware that their message had been sucked into a viral black hole. For organizations that lacked campaign-level funds or the digital expertise to recognize the problem, this could have meant the end of an entire year’s budget.

Unfortunate as they are, incidents like these aren’t rare in the advertising world. Indeed, Google’s system is designed to display ads in popular areas, presumably to the advertiser’s benefit. Yet in order for these ads to be effective, the advertiser must choose relevant placements.

This customization, complex and time-consuming, is often one of the biggest challenges issue advocates face when they begin advertising online. A simple-sounding idea (“I want to raise awareness for [x] on the Internet”) is deceptively complicated to do right. As a result, work is outsourced or done quickly, leading to low performance, inefficient spending, or in extreme cases, dishonest reporting.

With this in mind, there are a few important things advocacy professionals should be aware of as they develop online advertising campaigns:

Location – Where are your ads appearing? Are these the places you want them to be seen? Location information is often hidden under a “placements” sub-tab in the back end dashboard. Use these statistics to optimize your campaign. If ads are performing well on, say, shopping websites but not weather ones, focus on the former and deemphasize the latter. This might involve creating placement exclusions, changing ad copy, and/or adjusting when ads are served.

Mobile – Many advertising platforms give you smartphone- and tablet-targeting options. Consider your audience — do they use mobile devices? Would they be likely to respond to your issue away from a desktop computer? If you have a website with back end analytics, look at the referral traffic to see where visitors are coming from. Monitoring during a mobile campaign is especially important to keep ads from appearing on unrelated apps (like Flappy Bird). More so than standard online advertising (on desktop computers), mobile advertising is still a work-in-progress. Despite a large and growing audience, advertisers continue to struggle with the new physical format and changing user habits.

Keywords – Keywords dictate where your ads appear, both in and outside of search engine results. Google’s Display network, for instance, displays ads contextually. If one of your keywords is “heart disease,” your ads are eligible to appear on any web pages in the network that contain or could be related to that phrase. Use your website’s analytics to see what search terms visitors are using to reach your site. What are the website’s most popular pages? Mention the topics in your copy and keywords. Google’s Keyword Planner is helpful for generating related terms and phrase variations.

Testing – Test different versions of ads with a small trial budget before starting a full campaign. Remember to limit yourself to one variable. For example, display the same ad at different times of day or different ads at the same time of day, but not different ads at different times. With a large user base and no minimum spend requirement, Facebook is particularly good for this.

Most importantly, know that while success isn’t guaranteed, it can be achieved with the right preparation and audience optimization.