What Content Marketers Can Learn from Social Media and Politics
In 2014, I attended Marketo’s annual Summit. I was looking forward to the event for a number of reasons, but I was also excited to hear the keynote address by Hillary Clinton. I remember everyone on my marketing department talking about how shocked and excited they were that they were able to attend a great marketing conference and hear the former Secretary of State speak. It felt like a twofer and who couldn’t use more of those?
Many also wondered if Hillary was going to be throwing her hat into the ring for the 2016 presidential election, and if she would announce it at the conference. In fact, Marketo’s CEO seemed to be wondering the same thing. During her keynote interview, Phil Fernandez mentioned her recent activity, tying it directly to her presidential ambitions: “People say it looks and sounds like a campaign swing.”
Hillary burst into laughter. When she stopped laughing, her response was absolutely fascinating from a marketing perspective:
The audience laughed with her because they immediately understood the self-effacing comment to be an allusion to her 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary loss to Barrack Obama. It was common knowledge during the 2008 Democratic Primary that Obama’s team was “out marketing” Hillary’s team. People often discussed Obama's massive online advantage, which was largely predicated on his campaign's use of social media, particularly Facebook during the campaign:
Indeed, Obama’s web blitzkrieg was actually masterminded by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, which included everything from social media networks, to podcasting and mobile messaging.
Or as one New York Times pundit explained:
But Obama didn’t just win the White House transforming his campaign into a massive social media machine. No, after the election was over, his mastery of social media allowed him to take a database of millions of supporters who could be leveraged “almost instantly” to help execute his agenda.
Database? Social media networks? Mobile Messaging? Wow, it almost sounds as if we’re talking about marketing not politics. But as Hillary basically admitted in her interview with Fernandez: politics is marketing. Politicians who fail to master the basic lessons of marketing will have the same challenges as companies who also fail to get their marketing right:
- Diluted and fractured messaging
- Lack of focus on core equities
- Reduced enthusiasm in the market
- Increased churn
- Lost opportunities to a competiton
Conversely, a more compelling question might be: what can marketers learn from politicians about marketing? In particular, given the bizarre and heated climate of the 2016 presidential election, what can marketers learn right now from the current election?
2016: The Year Politics Cross the Social Media Rubicon
While President Obama was no stranger to the power and sway of social media in his election campaigns, 2016 became something of a tipping point for his potential successors. Facebook and Twitter are now courted just as ardently as any swing state, and the content marketing world has been watching the progression with rapt attention. From the beginning of the race until the inevitable conventions and beyond, each potential candidate has leaned heavily on the power and reach of social media, at times even to the detriment of more traditional platforms like television and print ads.
Berning Up the Networks
Even though he fell short of winning the official democratic nomination, it's hard to consider anyone other than Bernie Sanders the social media winner this election cycle. The most coveted of the niche voters, millennials took his campaign message and ran with it. In fact, his message amplified and spread until it had grown a life of its own, and drove unprecedented amounts of small dollar contributions— with the oft-repeated average of $27—to bring him nearly equal to his super-PAC-funded peers.
What marketers can learn from Bernie Sanders: A sincere and authentic message is important, especially as the foundation of a major campaign—whether it's election or advertising. If you create a brand message that resonates well, a brand loyal audience will do much of your "carrying" for you, so long as you take pains to recognize and validate them. In terms of selling, this can take the form of answering back social media shout-outs directly, and keeping your community informed with frequent—but not too frequent, because no one likes to be buried in spam—updates. This ongoing dialogue with your fans and followers (prospects and customers) can translate into product launches, new sales territories, amusing product-related stores, superfan pictures—if it's relevant and relatable, it's fuel for your very own "bern." Don't believe in the power of in-the-moment brand messages? Consider, for a moment, what the Sanders campaign did with a single wayward bird that landed on his podium: the content marketing world virtually exploded, quickly dubbing the feathered friend "Birdie Sanders." Bernie’s loyal fans effectively developed a brand mascot for the campaign overnight.
Bernie enjoyed a good bit of popularity during his run, and huge block-busting crowds gathered to hear him speak wherever he landed. He was not, however, the only one with headline-making gatherings: business magnate and controversy magnet Donald Trump has also been able to hold his own. If Bernie was the "change it all and start from scratch" candidate, Trump is the "more of everything" candidate—an expected tack from anyone that's ever walked through one of his impressive gild-the-lily style hotels. Trump began the race as an interesting outside-the-box foil to his liberal counterpart, Sanders, but swiftly overtook Republican challengers like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to cinch the nomination handily. The heart of his staggering popularity? His "shoot from the hip" communication style—unfiltered, unexpected and anything but politically correct. It became a rallying cry for large groups nationwide, many confused, angry or frustrated in the wake of liberal victories such as marriage equality. Trump's unedited words resonated with their dislike of societal shifts, and they were happy to propel him to the top in turn.
What marketers can learn from Donald Trump: If you are going to use a message or theme that goes against the norm, especially one that could ruffle some established feathers, commit to it. If Trump were to change his tone tomorrow and start speaking in politically correct terms and ideas, the bottom would likely drop out of his popularity. To use something noteworthy for attention—a commercial, a slogan, an image—and then suddenly pull away from it is to portray your brand as disingenuous. To see a lesser extent in action, simply look to the tongue-in-cheek history of the Trump-Pence logo, which lived and died in the space of a single day when a few suggestive spoofs made the rounds. The story of its rapid vanishing and retooling became the snicker that would not rest, eclipsing the importance of Trump's VP nod.
But more than anything else, marketers can learn a great deal from Trump about what to do (and not do) in social media marketing.
According to Politico, Trump’s campaign has set a “new benchmark for the press and public online.” Dan Pfieffer, Obama’s former top communications adviser, said of Trump that he is “way better at the Internet than anyone else in the GOP” and claims Trump’s social media mastery is the reason he won the Republican nomination. Indeed, Trump had only 300,000 Twitter followers in 2011, but has over 12.6 million followers now. Political pundit Van Jones called Trump the first “Social Media” president.
It is somewhat ironic that Trump and Clinton’s second presidential debate broke records on both Twitter and Facebook while Trump was using the debate stage to extoll the virtues of Twitter as a communication medium:
While social media helped Trump outmaneuver GOP rivals in the Republican Primary, it’s difficult to say whether it’s ultimately helping or hurting his campaign in the general election as a series of Twitter beefs, 3 am tweets, and ad hominem attacks have created or exacerbated scandals that are jeopardizing his influence with independent voters, which could cost him the election. It seems Trump hasn't learned this important lesson: if social media “made” Trump, it can also break him.
Climbing a Steep (Capitol) Hill
Hillary Clinton made history as the first female Presidential candidate officially appointed by a major party, but it was hard won. Besieged by accusations ranging from her pantsuit choices to her email servers, Hillary spent a good portion of her campaigning batting away persistent issues, rather than supporting and growing her social media reach. She had a team, of course, but it lacked the wit and teeth of Sanders' team and rarely produced eminently "retweetable" snippets, with the exception of the infamous "delete your account" response mercilessly leveled at Trump. Did Mrs. Clinton miss out on capturing more of her targeted demographics by neglecting social media presence? Maybe not, considering the backlash she received with a few tone-deaf fundraising emails; the #ImNotKiddingMaddi hashtag shone a particularly unflattering spotlight on her seeming demands for money from supporters strapped for cash. Still, maintaining a steady, if relatively unremarkable presence on social media seemed to work in her favor: she is not only the democratic nominee, she is also leading Trump in many nationwide polls.
What marketers can learn from Hillary Clinton: Slow and steady can win a lot of races, even a presidential one. If your competitors are hyping themselves hoarse, the best move might not necessarily be to follow suit. The furious pace of one-upsmanship can lead you down a dark path in the content marketing world, as well—you might end up unintentionally swiping a trademark in a rush to get the last word in. Hillary has kept her eye on the prize, and so should you: let your rivals wear themselves out keeping up with each other as you build an entirely different option for volume-weary customers. If all else fails, tap into authorities in your industry for support, such as Elizabeth Warren's ardent support for Clinton in the form of her anti-Trump Twitter tirades.
As separate entities, even in a vacuum, no presidential candidate has achieved complete success on social media—but their pile of collective wins is nonetheless compelling evidence that social media marketing works in politics. Use these high-profile individuals as your case studies and learn from their mistakes: they're the most well-covered mistakes in recent history and offer a wealth of information on fallout and brand damage. Whether you inspire like Bernie, disrupt like Trump, or stay steady like Hillary, you might just inspire a legion of fans and followers who will help your brand become the next market leader of the free world.
Which presidential candidate do you think mastered social media marketing? And which one decreased their brand equity? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think :)
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