Monday, November 19, 2018

Social Media Strategies Win Elections

Political marketing has become a growing facet of marketing that has infiltrated the campaigning of U.S. presidential elections. Within this cognate of marketing, social media has become a major component of predicting election outcomes starting with the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

An analysis of the social media performance of candidates from the 2008 U.S. presidential election to the 2018 midterm elections reveals how the power of social media can be harnessed to increase voter participation, connect voters to offline political activity, and engage voters with candidates on a more personal note. Social media political marketing should further emphasize the candidate’s brand and build followership through targeted messaging to desired segments.

Social media continues to grow in use and bypass direct news sources; therefore, it must complement and create a dialogue with traditional media, as it will likely surpass it someday. From raising money to recruiting volunteers, a strong presence on social media will help your campaign stand out. Leverage your voice on social media to discuss your values and introduce policy proposals. Done well, even standard posts can earn you media coverage.

According to a Pew Research Study published in July 2018, thirty-two percent of Americans have used social media to encourage their friends and followers to take political action. Twenty-four percent of Democrats have used social media to learn more about an offline protest or rally and thirty-nine percent of users say that social media helps them get politically engaged. Simply put, your campaign cannot afford to neglect its social media presence.

But running social media for your campaign is a little different than handling your personal Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram presence. Instead of just posting when you feel like it and sharing small snippets of your life, the voice of your campaign online needs to be strategic and planned.

Former President Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to leverage the power of social media to work his way to the White House in 2008. Never before had a political candidate so candidly interacted with the American people and reached out to them where they spent most of their time: online. Along with winning over potential voters at rallies and other organized events, his team reached out to people in their homes, at work and on the go over social media.

The Obama campaign not only used Facebook and YouTube to reach large demographics of voters, but also MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, Digg, BlackPlanet, LinkedIn, AsianAve, MiGente, Glee and many others, to reach smaller voter sects. Obama later perfected his social media strategy during his reelection campaign in 2012.

A year later, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) also made history when he leveraged Vine, an up-and-coming, hip new platform at the time, to showcase his vote against a bill that would have limited access to abortions. Posting his “nay” vote, Swalwell captioned his post, writing, “When House @GOP try to roll back health protections for women, this is how I vote. #WarOnWomen.”

The 2016 presidential election further changed the landscape for politicians on social media, especially in regard to Donald Trump’s unconventional usage of Twitter. Instead of following a carefully scripted narrative online, Trump leaned into the chaos of early morning Tweet battles, grammatical errors and rants. While to his opponents, this seemed to be a grave course of action, to his followers, this strategy made him far more approachable, thus helping him win the election.

The campaigns and approaches of both nominees in the 2016 presidential election are extremely different: Clinton followed a more traditional, polished approach to campaigning, while Trump displayed a more brass, grass-roots campaign style. Thus, their approaches to marketing within their corresponding campaigns is unique.

Ultimately, the candidate who is able to successfully filter their message through an innovative marketing strategy will win the election. The online marketing and advertising of each candidate has been a prominent platform for reaching voters compared to elections in the past.

The use of social media also provides a venue to establish a strong base of supporters around a corporate or individual brand. Overall, Trump had more followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram compared to Clinton. Trump had 10.3 million followers while Clinton only has 7.84 million on Twitter.

The primary reason for Trump’s larger base is due to his more active presence on social media and his ability to speak his mind directly. This aids in his relations with his target audience On Twitter the distinction in terms of professionalism and authenticity is abundantly clear where 82% of Clinton’s tweets were considered traditional while 55% of Trump’s tweets were more authentic and unconventional.

Unlike the 2012 presidential election candidates, Trump did not rely on social media staffers or communication experts to develop professional communication material; instead, he embraced his position as a genuine outsider and this concept permeated his tweets.

Through the passion of his engaged followers, Trump increased his visibility in the social media world. With the use of real-time platforms like Twitter, Trump did not have to wait for the media to come to him and compensated this deficit with the news media. His engagement in real-time was able to spark headlines across the country in multiple media outlets and is an example of direct marketing. He used media as a platform for reacting on his behalf, while Clinton waited until the media approached her. The performance each candidate made in the public news media outlets compared to social media do not associate. Trump had a strong social media presence to use as a way to express his message but was not favored in public media news outlets as Clinton’s message was highlighted. This is pivotal to note because news media outlets are contracting, while there has been significant expansion on the reliance of social media for news coverage. This suggests that social media had more of an outcome on this election than in the past.

Increasingly in the 2016 election, candidates were required to have a “performative flexibility” to help connect with voters in an optimal manner. This entails being able to move comfortably between various format criteria and underlying expectations—informal to formal and personalized to professionalism. In terms of political marketing, this created a need for highly flexible as well as professional communication to be a key division in a candidate’s campaign.

To succeed in social media political marketing, a strong strategy with clear objectives that adheres to the best practices outlined below must be in place. Value and relevance are key to the impact of social media on voters. Communications on social media should not just focus on the party a candidate is affiliated with but should also focus on the candidates themselves where transparency equates to likability and trust in the social media world. Posts created need to be simple, rather than complex or academic. If these messages are simple and attractive, participants on social media may be more likely to share them over their social networks, which will be more accepted by others as it is coming from their peers rather than candidates themselves. Simply delivering information will not work and will not succeed in harnessing the power of social networks. People are more likely to support candidates that display appeal as well as integrity on social media especially if they are endorsed by other individuals in their network. In any form of marketing, including social media, everything from the product, message, messenger, and tone must align completely to entice consumers to read, share, and engage.


Without effective content, political marketing efforts will be ineffective on social media. When developing content for social media platforms, it is important to recall the goals of using social media for political marketing purposes. The primary goals include social media use for fundraising, to rally their base voters, engage with voters to increase participation, and to achieve participation goals for the election. Thus, social media content must encourage voters to participate through voting as well as donate monetarily and through time. Within political marketing, it is also imperative that social media efforts alter the perspective from content consumers to content producers as this will generate more awareness of campaign activities and create viral social media activity surrounding a candidate’s campaign.

From Obama’s 2008 campaign, it is apparent how integral it is to ensure that online political campaign content is linked to offline activity as well as other forms of media. The content placed on social media for a campaign should complement or respond to traditional media because there is no evidence that social media will replace the political communication that occurs on traditional media outlets. Therefore, social media content should strive to document, debate, mention, or feature the political material portrayed on traditional media outlets.

Authentic content has proved to be extremely successful in political marketing on social media. In the 2016 election, two polarized strategies were used for content choice: professionalism versus amateurism. The amateurism, more authentic approach that Trump used in selecting content ultimately corresponded with his image and related to his targeted audience, while Clinton’s professional, typical democratic content did not achieve the same results. Trump ultimately was more consistently involved in the creation of his tweets and generally wrote tweets after 7:00 p.m.; while during the day, he would shout tweets to his staffers.

To further achieve authenticity, it is important that everything from account name—handle—to posts, all generate the same foundational theme. For instance, Trump’s twitter name of “areal_DonaldTrump” further illustrated the theme of authentic content within his social media campaign. The less professional more authentic approach to content creation can also be illustrated in the 2012 Obama campaign where Obama sought to avoid the use of professional staffers to generate meaningful content. However, it is important to note that the effectiveness of authenticity on social media depends on the context and targeted segments chosen. Overall, the content used on social media platforms for political purposes should resemble the candidate as much as possible.

The content developed for campaign social media platforms should resemble political marketing. This is imperative to aid in controlling the message as much as possible and ensure that the candidate is continuously promoted. Therefore, the initiation of public debate should not be the focus of the content posted.

Engagement and Sharing

Although more interaction between politicians and the public has occurred, it is still imperative that the political campaigns control the level of engagement and flow of the dialogue to ensure image is maintained. For example, in 2016 election there were no comment sections on each candidates’ websites. This corresponds with the main goal of social media use in political marketing—mobilizing voters—not engaging with the public. To engage with voters in a more passive manner, reposting or retweeting are effective means.

A level of engagement, in real-time, on social media is needed to succeed in elections, just in a more passive manner. Trusted persuasion is the term that describes content sharing on social media where communication from peers and friends is highly more persuasive than from an advertisement. This corresponds with the impact of sharing meaningful content as a more organic approach to activating and promoting campaign activity.

Social sharing is especially effective for niche candidates like Trump and Sanders who built their base through social networks rather than campaign advertising. During the 2016 election, Trump retweeted more frequently with a quarter of his tweets being retweets and 78% of those retweets were from regular, public users. This is a stark contrast to Clinton who only had 15% of her tweets as retweets, and they were from her staffers accounts rather than retweets from the general public. Trump also regularly used capital letters in his tweets, which signify engagement, spontaneity, and sincerity. There is significant risk in retweeting content that you cannot initially control which means that it should only be done if it aligns with the core competencies of your campaign. For example, Trump portrayed himself as an outsider so retweeting content from the general public aligned with his campaign goals and strengthened his overall mission.


Combining governmental activity, such as politics, can be a security nightmare if proper steps to ensure web security are not in place. The goal of a campaig is to end up in a government held office. During the campaigning process, if social media is used then a two-way community is created which opens up the possibility for cyber-attacks and viruses that could ultimately destroy an individual’s political career. Therefore, implementing the best cyber security measures, even during the campaign process, is needed when using social media for political marketing. This will prevent attacks, and the unintended release of information. It will also establish strong public trust if security measures are in place. Political marketers must keep up-to-date to on current laws regarding social media practices for government websites. The OMB Memo M-05-04, which is a policy for federal websites, requires a level of security controls that must be in place to resist confidentiality breaks and tampering. A security plan must be in place for the social media accounts of politicians to ensure that hacking is prevented as this can completely taint the credibility of a candidate.

Platform Selection

As political marketing has progressed on social media, it is evident that a campaign must strategically pick a select number of platforms to use and excel at manipulating them to enhance the campaign. Before the 2016, Obama, with nine, and Romney, with five, used multiple social media platforms. Although this was effective in the past, the 2016 presidential cycle had a significant drop in the number of platforms used by candidates. Both Trump and Clinton decided to use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Clinton also decided to use Pinterest as well. This signifies how U.S. presidential campaigns have initially experimented and expanded with social media for marketing purposes and are now progressing towards consolidation and mastery.

Future political marketing campaigns must strategically select a few social media platforms to use that align best with their targeted segments and that will generate the most followership on them.

Targeting and Segmenting Audience

For any form of marketing, targeting and segmentation, is needed to reach the right audience with the correct message. Beginning in the early 2000s, micro-targeting and advanced audience segmentation has greatly influenced political marketing. The need for micro-targeting in political marketing was extremely apparent during the 2008 presidential election as Hillary Clinton hired Mark Penn, a key contributor toward the micro-targeting initiative, to be her primary strategist.

Allowing data to drive decision-making in terms of target marketing began during the 2012 Obama for America campaign, where analytics were used to better the desired television audiences. The use of analytics was also used by the Obama campaign to predict activity by their target segments making resource allocation easier. The data acquired was analyzed to identify voters and send them highly personalized messaging as a means of optimizing marketing output. The analytics system used by the Obama campaign in 2012 was a customer model that used voter data in tens of thousands of daily simulations to predict which states would most likely be swing states which enabled them to shift marketing resources in real-time to be directed towards these states. The analytics from this model were also used for day-to-day marketing purposes such as developing landing pages for their website and social content for their social media platforms.

The best way to “know your audience” is to dig into the analytics data of your social media feeds and find out what type of posts are getting the most positive engagement from your followers. But when you’re starting from scratch, you have the freedom to make some educated guesses about your audience and find out what sticks.

You’ll also want to consider the user demographics of each platform. Twitter users tend to be wealthier, more educated, and more progressive. Instagram and Snapchat attract more Millenials and racially-diverse users than any other platform. Facebook and YouTube are the most widely-used platforms with audiences of all ages.

Also, it’s easier to appropriately target your campaign’s messaging when you know what folks are looking for on each platform. For Instagram, it's mostly personal anecdotes. It's a very personal platform, and people don't want to just see your organization's graphics, they also want to know what your organization is doing. Twitter is a very news-y platform, people really want to hear from you quickly about big news updates around your issues. In contrast, Facebook has a longer shelf life, so you want to think about how your posts are going to age there.”

Once you’ve started to post regularly on social media, you can dig into the data to find out what is performing well and connecting with your audience. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all provide their own analytics for your account. You can view your top-performing posts and see how engagement has changed over time.

To view a breakdown of your analytics, make sure that you’re posting from a Page on Facebook and a Business Account on Instagram. Look for patterns about which posts are reaching the widest audience and receiving the most engagement. You may find that your supporters engage most with a video, like Facebook Live, or retweet value-statements from your candidate more often than policy breakdowns. Whatever you learn, keep replicating the type of content that people love.

In early 2015, NGP/VAN, the dominant provider of voter data for Democratic political party organizations and campaigns and U.S. progressive causes, made it easier for campaigns to connect with voters by adding social media messaging capabilities to its extensive repository of voter information.

With VAN’s social matching, any voter record contained in VAN’s extensive data repository of voter information - that has an email address - can be matched to nearly 100 different social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The tool isn’t perfect, with a roughly 50% match rate, but even so, it provides a good way for any campaign to launch its social media communications strategy.

By extending VAN’s extensive voter information into the world of social media, campaigns can target specific kinds of potential supporters for outreach through their social media accounts; For example, campaigns can target only supporters with more than 500 Facebook friends or more than 1,000 Twitter followers to ask them to host fundraiser events in their homes.

Be Authentic and Accessible

In 2018, digital campaigning was revolutionized as candidates began to take a more informal and direct approach to social media. Candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke saw immense success by inviting users into their homes and along the campaign trail for conversations over Instagram Stories and Facebook Live. While running for Texas’s U.S. Senate seat, O’Rourke was famous for his daily FaceBook live-streams talking to voters while driving or grabbing a meal at What-A-Burger while traveling from campaign to campaign stop back and forth across Texas, or just about any other time during his campaign day.

In 2011, then Massachusetts Senate candidate
Elizabeth Warren gained widespread attention
on social media when a video of Warren
speaking at a neighborhood campaign stop, in
which she proclaimed an almost perfect
explanation of government tax policy, went
viral on social media.

O’Rourke came within 3 points of beating Texas’ incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz where statewide Democratic candidates have lost by wide margins for 25 years. Newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat her multi-term incumbent congressional primary opponent who had no social media presence other than a standard static campaign website.

While it can be easy to conflate their success with their use of the format, there is nothing inherently good about hosting a chat while you eat a burger at What-A-Burger or make mac and cheese for dinner. Instead, the value comes from having an honest and informal conversation about the issues that matter to the voters.

Superb social media fluency is one of the many things that catapulted freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into political superstardom. On the campaign trail, she used tools like Twitter and Instagram to spread her message and humanize the workaday experience of political campaigning. Ocasio-Cortez says the key to effectively using social media to connect with voters is to be yourself:
  • “Don’t try to be anybody who you’re not.”
  • “If you’re an older woman, talk like an older woman talks.”
  • “Social media is not a press release. It’s not a press conference.” It’s a conversation.
  • “It’s not the kitchen that’s popular, or the cooking that’s popular, it’s that I’m engaging people doing something I’m already doing. (AOC gained attention for live-streaming conversions with voters while she cooked dinner.)
To stand out as a “relatable” candidate on social media, you need to bring the conversations you’re already having with your friends and supporters to a wider audience, speaking to them as though they too are already your friends and supporters.

You don’t have to try to keep up with the latest trends on social media — your supporters will do that for you. If they post support for you or even make a meme about your candidacy, make sure you recognize that support with a like, share, or comment. Every time you engage, you’ll encourage folks to keep posting about the campaign.

Define Your Voice

Start by deciding what your voice is and really sticking to it. Your voice should be distinct enough to stand out in a crowded digital space. If you’re struggling to define it, look to the social media presence of campaigns and organizations that you admire for inspiration.

Whether you’re running for city council or congress, it is important to be vocal about the issues that you can impact when you’re elected. While it can be tempting to chime in every time breaking news hits, it’s important to be thoughtful about when you speak up and when you step back.

Folks may be curious to hear your take on current issues, but keep in mind that they’re really most interested in learning about your values. Know exactly what you’ll be able to influence when you’re elected and focus your posts on those topics. When you’re deciding whether or not to comment on a story, consider the following questions:
  • Does our campaign have a stake in the issue?
  • Is this conversation relevant to the people that we’re hoping to represent and mobilize?
  • Is this an opportunity to strengthen our own narrative?
Create a Content Calendar

A content calendar is a key to professionalizing your social media operation. An editorial calendar keeps your team organized and provides a big-picture view of your digital campaign strategy. It can keep your team accountable, by tracking your call-to-actions and making sure that your campaign is pushing out a variety of content across platforms.

Those using NGP/VAN can use the VAN template to create monthly, weekly, and daily calendars that keep social media messaging drum strong and steady.

Creation of Group Membership

After analysis of the 2008 to 2016 presidential elections, key social media practices can be acknowledged to better enhance the use of this tool in future political marketing campaigns. Within social media, political marketers must create an environment of group membership that will encourage more political engagement. Group membership is imperative to have on social media platforms—whether is it a group page on Facebook or followers on a Twitter account—because it will provide an environment to discuss politics, keeps individuals accountable, and most importantly encourages offline participation. Although social media does not conclusively make individuals more knowledgeable with regards to political issues, there is strong evidence that it does increase offline involvement and political participation. Therefore, there is a positive relationship between online group membership with regards to politics and offline political participation. Group membership on social media will create a culture that requires learning through necessity as learning about policies and politics will be needed to participate and engage. It is important to remember that for younger generations, like Millennials, exchange of information over the internet fosters trust and engagement, while this is not the case if it is strictly social recreation. Therefore, in political marketing strategy, social media posts must have deliberate, informative, and to the point.

Display and Responsiveness

The way content is displayed on social media has a dramatic impact on how it is received. Compared to the 2012 election, the 2016 presidential election had a strong focus on images and videos to communicate using social media. This transition occurred largely because of the dramatic increase in individuals who use mobile applications to consume social media. For example, Instagram, the photo-sharing platform, was used by Clinton, Trump, and Sanders. On Facebook and Twitter, video was aggressively used in comparison to the 2012 election. Hillary Clinton frequently posted videos to convey her message.

For modern campaigns to capture the attention of younger voters, it is imperative that digital content is displayed with images and video. Due to this preferred display and mobile age, content must be extremely mobile friendly and developed first as most individuals access social media on their mobile devices. In terms of display, high levels of responsiveness where a page displays correctly on various channels, such as mobile, is advised to ensure user usability—a major struggle for the Trump campaign initially. In correspondence with responsiveness, consistency across all channels must be maintained as a campaign’s image could be negatively impacted if social channels and branded content do not align.

Candidates running high-impact federal office campaigns aren’t the only political contenders who need to leverage social media. Local and state politicians should also use social media channels to connect with their voters, expand their voter demographics and much more. Building on the best practices noted above, here are seven final tips for knowing how to effectively use social media for any local, state or national political campaign:

1. Treat social media campaigns like brand platforms

Not unlike a product or organization, in today’s online society, public officials are not any different than huge brand names or companies in regard to how people pay attention to their actions and image they exude. What this means, is that in the days before social media, candidates were primarily defined by their political leanings and public actions. Now, with the rise of this online fervor, every little detail of candidates lives is now instantly available.

During the 2016 presidential primaries, voters in Washington state could log on to Snapchat or Instagram and see what Senator Bernie Sanders was doing that day. Other voters from Florida could do the same about Senator Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton. The scope is even wider though. Much like an international organization, interested “consumers” from all over the world can sign into social media accounts and monitor the “brand name” of any politician.

Just like politicians want to project a certain brand at their rallies, at debates, and on television, they must do the same on their social media channels. Trump thoroughly embraced his outspoken and bullish nature both in person and in his endless number of Twitter rants. He used nicknames and catchphrases that resonated with his particular brand to draw in more voters.

Like with any brand, every bit of advertising or marketing must align itself with the overall branding framework. Therefore, every tweet, blog post, image and Facebook post must adhere to the perfectly crafted script and controlled branding message candidates are trying to showcase. While Trump’s tweeting may seem like his team is letting him have full reign and tweet unchecked, this is all part of their social media branding strategy to show his supporters that his passion for change will not be tamed.

2. Speak the platform’s language

A post on Twitter will not have the same effect across all social media platforms. This is because the platforms offer different purposes and cater to diverse demographics and users. It’s essential for political teams to understand the various ins and outs of each platform to know how to craft the perfect message for their target audience. Most obviously, candidates wouldn’t use the same post on LinkedIn as they would on Twitter, just as they would not do the same on Facebook and Snapchat.

Today, Facebook is primarily used by middle to older generations, while Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat are used by younger voters. Politicians must carefully learn each platform’s language in order to appeal to its users.

3. Consistency is essential

One of the most important thoughts to keep in mind while using social media during a political campaign is to be consistent. Being consistent does not mean that candidates should do the same thing day after day and never adapt their strategy. After all, candidates should continually be tapping into new trends, strategies and platform features to resonate with a wider demographic of voters.

What consistency actually means is that candidates not only remain true to their “branding,” but also take time to invest in the followers they garner over time. Followers come to expect certain kinds of tweets or posts from the candidates. If Clinton and Trump suddenly started posting on social media like each other, their followers would be confused and probably more than a little upset.

Building relationships take time and this is no different over social media. While it might be easier to reach potential voters than traditional meet-and-greet methods, politicians must realize that social media marketing is not a short-term game plan. They must be in it for the long haul, willing to put in the hours to engage with the followers they gain and continually reach out to those who are still holding out.

4. Images speak louder than words

What speaks more volume: A short tweet about a politician serving food at a soup kitchen, or an image that captures the moment? Obviously, the image speaks far more about political candidates’ passion for the issues. Since pictures are worth a thousand words candidates should be proactive about candid photo opportunities, especially on Snapchat and similar platforms.

Experts indicate that even on Twitter, which is known for its strict character limit, tweets that contain images have higher click-through rates, retweets and conversions. Instead of only focusing on crafting a story with words, campaign managers, candidates and communication directors must also leverage images to achieve higher levels of voter engagement.

5. Make it easy for voters to donate

Prior to the rise of social media, supporters had to seek out their candidate’s donate button on their website or mail in their monetary support. Now, candidates can include donate buttons on their social media channels, allowing their supporters to contribute in real-time and on the same platform.

Big data allows campaigns to uniquely target potential voters or donors, which boosts candidates’ chances of gaining votes and support. If voters are always reading articles about women’s rights issues over social media, political campaigns can target these voters with specific ads focused on how their candidate has championed women’s issues. This may make voters more inclined to donate right on the candidate’s social media page.

6. Get personal

More than ever before, candidates are getting personal over social media. Instead of only relying on heavily choreographed and scripted press conferences and photo ops to convey their message, some are also turning right to social media platforms. For example, candidates might upload compelling, short Snapchat stories to talk about their views on immigration reform or the need for funding for inner cities schools.

Voters are tired of hearing the same-old jargon and the same-old issues. They want to vote for candidates who are willing to get real about the issues they support. This is where Trump triumphed in the social media environment. He simplified complicated political issues (whether intentionally or not) on Twitter, which resonated with a large swath of people who were not normally engaged with the political sphere. Getting personal allowed him to appeal to an entire group of unreached voters.

7. Continually evolve

The key to any successful political social media strategy is to be willing to pivot at a moment’s notice. What works one month may look clumsy or outdated in the next. Just as political campaigns themselves are constantly evolving, so should candidates’ social media approaches. They must find what works for them and keeps their name popping up time and time again in the news. After all, name recognition is the real secret to successful political campaigns.

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