What the National Institutes of Health Data Say About How to Effectively Advertise on Social Media

The National Institutes of Health (yes, that one) published a study of Facebook ads that provides insight into the most effective tone for driving engagement.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM), a subset of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), conducted an interesting study on the most effective tone for social media advertisement titled, Social Advertising Effectiveness in Driving Action: A Study of Positive, Negative and Coactive Appeals on Social Media.

At a glance, this feels like a pretty unlikely source for this kind of research. As the researchers cited in the study’s introduction, social media is one of the fastest methods of spreading information on matters of public health, and it played a critical role in informing the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Knowing which kind of social media ads are most effective is in their best interest – and ours, as beneficiaries of hopefully thriving public health.

The NIH Study Compared Positive, Negative, and Coactive Ads

This study compared the effectiveness of social media ads with positive, negative, and coactive tones, coactive meaning that both kinds of language were present.

Their methodology included deploying three ads on Facebook with identical designs, regarding the issue of clothing waste. The only difference was the copy. The ads linked to a charity, and the researchers kept track of data using Facebook’s A/B testing tool.

The positive ad read: Thanks to your donations, we can reduce the yearly 500,000 tonnes of clothes going to landfill.

The negative ad read: Every year, 500,000 tonnes of clothes go to landfill. Stop drowning the planet.

The coactive ad read: The planet is drowning with 500,000 tonnes of clothes going to landfill every year. Do your part. Donate your clothes.

Each ad had the same call to action at the bottom, which read: Order your free donation bad [charity url]

The Negative Ad Performed Better in Nearly Every Metric

The data collected by-and-large points to the idea that negative ads are the best for gaining peoples’ attention and compelling them to act.

The negative ad received the most impressions with 8,224, the coactive ad was second with 7,878, and the positive ad came last with 7,803.

Three hundred twenty-three people clicked on the negative ad, 244 clicked on the positive ad, and 220 clicked on the coactive ad. This means the negative ad had by far the highest clickthrough rate with 3.93%. The positive ad was second with 3.13%, and the coactive ad was last with 2.79%. All were well above the 1.24% average for Facebook ads.

The negative ad also received the most comments (4), shares (5), and forms submitted to receive a clothing donation bag (16).

How This Should Shape Your Facebook Ads Strategy

It’s important to note that while this data is interesting, it’s one drop in the bucket of research on this subject. Experiments need to be scrutinized and replicated before they’re considered fact, so it’s hard to definitively say that negative ads are always more effective than positive ones.

There are many instances where ads with underlying messages of hope and optimism can be effective. If that’s been your strategy, then you shouldn’t completely abandon that for negative ads because of this research.

This study was only conducted on Facebook, where its researchers acknowledge that negative content “dominates.” They also cite sample size as a limitation of this study and that “mediators of effectiveness, such as prior attitude towards the issue, were not examined in this study.” It’s impossible to say with any certainty whether the perception of your business or the issue your nonprofit addresses would have the same effect as the perception of the issue in this study or if there’s even an effect at all.

If there’s one big takeaway from this study concerning how it should affect your social media strategy is the merit of A/B testing. For this particular set of ads, the one with negative messaging appears more effective, but that isn’t necessarily the case for your ads.

The only way to know for sure is to perform similar tests with your ads. Collecting data on differing ads allows you to make incremental changes and arrive at a more optimized ad for your business or nonprofit.

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