No matter what result emerged, the 2016 US Presidential election was always going to go down in history as one of the most contentious, divisive and dramatic races in history. Now, with Donald Trump declared the winner, many people are asking exactly how we got here, and what lessons there are to be learned from this controversial climax to an election that has dominated the news for over 18 months.
Marketing and politics have much in common. Both are mechanisms of persuasion, reliant on knowing your core supporters and your potential audience, and reaching them with the right message.
No matter what your political affiliation, there is no denying that the clash between Trump and Clinton has made for a fascinating contrast in campaigning style. With Trump crowned the winner, what can marketers learn from his triumph?
The Death of Data?
Earlier this year, I covered the changing face of political campaigning, and how both Republican and Democratic parties were embracing mobile marketing and the power of data to inform their strategies.
However, there was a clear divide between Hilary Clinton’s campaign, which built on President Obama’s digital successes to create the most complex data operation in political history, and Donald Trump’s approach, which relied more on his bombastic social media presence, often to the displeasure of other Republican party officials.
President-elect Trump even went so far as to call large-scale data operations “overrated”, relying on the Republic National Committee’s existing infrastructure to assist his race and investing little of his own campaign war chest in building a data operation.
To modern marketing sensibilities, this is almost heresy. We live in an age where every campaign is informed by data to hone messaging and precisely target the most likely consumers. Adverts are adjusted in real-time to reflect everything from shifting weather to changing financial markets, and every campaign is subject to post-mortem analytics and breakdowns to look for the smallest of incremental improvements.
“The Clinton team were using a system for micro-modelling preference at an individual voter level to tell them who to turn out where with what message and where to allocate resources,” said market research expert Tom Ewing. “This was supposed to give her a clear competitive edge over Trump and his rallies and big-megaphone messages. Clearly it didn’t.
“The point is though that this micro-targeting technology is also why you see the […] Facebook ads you do, and why businesses think they can ‘serve’ you just the right video, and why web pages load so […] slowly, because they’re scraping all the data they can for better targeting. And it doesn’t work! It really publicly doesn’t work, since those idiots at Votecastr who Slatepitched the entire election used very similar micro-modelling techniques. This ought to be a wake-up call for all this stuff, but I bet it won’t be.”
With Trump’s campaign claiming the victory despite an overall rejection of this strategy, is it time for marketers to also rethink their approach to data? While an advertising campaign is unlikely to claim the same amount of free media that Trump’s presence on social platforms was able to generate, clever content marketing and authentic brand presences can build a loyal following that goes beyond clicks on ads, and instead actively seeks out interactions and functions as promoters for the brand.
The Social Media Election
One marketing trend that was reflected in the 2016 campaign was the power of social media to influence consumers, both for good and ill. Both Trump and Clinton aimed to integrate platforms like Facebook and Twitter into their messaging strategy, but while Clinton used a carefully-managed approach most brands will be familiar with, Trump took to social media less like a company and more like a user, tweeting with seemingly little filter in a way that felt authentic to voters.
Clinton aimed to compete with Trump as the campaign went on, trying to build a more ‘authentic’ social media presence and launching tools that aimed to capture the imagination of millennials, like a piece of software that enabled supporters to donate money every time Trump tweeted. However, such messages never clicked with Clinton’s image as a consummate professional politician, and therefore reinforced the very ‘stage-managed’ quality they aimed to fight.
It wasn’t just the candidates and campaigns themselves that took to social media. For 18 months, it was difficult to go onto Twitter or Facebook without someone opining on the latest developments in the race, and this barrage of news resulted in both increasing enmity between supporters of both sides, and apathy from undecideds.
A report from mobile analytics firm Flurry found that the 24-hour news cycle and torrent of online noise created a real sense of election fatigue among much of the electorate, with news reading activity on mobile devices failing to grow significantly following the second and third debates, and attention spans for even significant news like the leak of the Access Hollywood tapes lasting only 48 hours.
While the majority of the electorate may have been fed up with the cycle of constant news (an apathy equally reflected in low voter turnout rates), die-hard supporters were more active than ever, and rarely in a constructive manner.
In the days leading up to the election, fake graphics circulated on Twitter and Facebook urging Hillary Clinton supporters to vote early by text message, which is not possible. The graphics even appeared as sponsored posts on Twitter, and seemed to target African-American and Hispanic Clinton supporters, before they were removed by Twitter.
Such underhanded tactics were even called out by President Obama, who decried the used of social media to spread misinformation regarding the election and the candidates.
“If they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it’s on Facebook and people can see it, as long as its on social media, people start believing it,” said President Obama at a rally at the University of Michigan. “And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”
An investigation by BuzzFeed found that 38 per cent of posts shared from three large right-wing politics pages on Facebook included “false or misleading information”, as did 20 per cent of posts from three equivalent left-wing pages, while another study found that reports of fake stories spiked after Facebook let go of its human editors for the Trending news section, and instead relied solely on algorithms. Ironically, the human editors were fired after Facebook was accused of being anti-Trump and favouring liberal stories in the trending section.
“At the risk of being hyperbolic, I think there are few events over the last decade more significant than the social network’s wholesale acquisition of the traditional functions of news media (not to mention the political-part apparatus),” said Max Read of New York magazine.
“Trump’s ascendancy is far from the first material consequence of Facebook’s conquering invasion of our social, cultural, and political lives, but it’s still a bracing reminder of the extent to which the social network is able to upend existing structure and transform society — and often not for the better.”
The Industry Reacts
Not everyone was happy with the implication that social media was responsible for the rise of Trump, most notably Mark Zuckerberg, who hit back at these claims following the election.
“The idea that fake news on Facebook influence the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” said Zuckerberg at the Techonomy conference. “If you believe that then I don’t think you have internalised the message Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.”
Overall, the reaction to Trump’s victory from both the tech and marketing industries has been hesitant at best. With Trump expected to appoint new chairmen for the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, both of which could have a huge impact on marketers, industry experts are playing wait-and-see on how his election will affect legislation going forward.
“The intersection of advertising, marketing and politics is going to heat up in the next few months,” said Dan Jaffe, group executive vice president of government relations for the Associate of National Advertisers in an interview with AdAge. While a Clinton administration would likely have reduced tax deductions for advertisers and addressed growing privacy concerns over digital marketing, it was expected to be in-line with President Obama’s policies.
The notably tech-phobic President elect is seen as more of a wild card, and while a large portion of his election campaign focused on his business connections and acumen, Trump’s dislike of the media and proposed strengthening of US libel laws could prove troublesome for online publishers.
Economic experts are also worried that the Trump administration will see trade barriers raised between the US and the rest of the world, slowing both domestic and international trade and leading to slowing growth. Overall, the uncertainty of the days ahead is poor for continual investment, as shareholders and venture capitalists grow more cautious.
Martin Sorrell, founder and CEO of WPP, called the result of the election “effectively a second Brexit that leaves many very surprised, including the markets and me, it’s going to take a significant amount of time to assess the implications beyond the short term.”
In many ways, the confusion and shock that seems to be echoing around the industry is to be expected following any electoral upset, as companies scramble to adjust to the news, but Donald Trump’s victory also represents something larger than a simple miscalculation of polling data.
The 2016 campaign will be remembered as one of the most bitter and controversial of our lifetimes. And given the scandal that has followed President-elect Trump throughout his life, his lack of experience as a political leader, and the wave of anger and fear that greeted the news of his victory, we cannot expect his administration to be business-as-usual by any stretch of the imagination.