The 2016 Presidential campaign is shaping up to be a race for the ages. It’s like an alternate political universe where you can self-describe as a socialist or spout sexist comments and somehow manage to improve your standing. And after the latest round of primaries on March 15, it appears it’s only going to get more interesting.
Traditional ideas of how to attract voters have been thrown out the window this election season, but certain principles remain: The stories candidates tell and the content they share has a powerful impact on the momentum of their campaigns. Content marketing has, and will continue to, play a critical role in how candidates engage with voters, and ultimately in who gets elected.
Why content marketing matters in politics.
Content marketing has erupted in the brand world over the past few years and is now a cornerstone of the modern marketing arsenal because it helps brands cultivate relatable personalities and build trust.
Just as brands need to attract and engage consumers, so do political candidates need to attract and engage voters. The fact is that political figures are brands. Throughout American history, voters have demonstrated that they respond to candidates who have a compelling story, and who voters like and believe understands them. Voters don’t just want to hear about politics and ideology -- they want interesting, emotional and authentic content from candidates.
This is particularly true for Millennials, who have consistently shown that stories matter to them when making decisions. In 2016, Millennials caught up to, and now equal, baby boomers in potential voting power. By 2020, the Millennial voting base will surpass boomers.
Any candidate that hopes to win the Millennial vote, and the nation’s, has to excel at content marketing. Accordingly, political ad spending on TV will total $4.4 billion and online ads will account for another $1 billion this election cycle. In addition, every candidate is active on social media, which allows them to control the stories they tell and the perceptions they evoke (as opposed to relinquishing control to the media).
Let’s take a look at the content marketing strategies of this election’s leading candidates, and predict who will win based on that alone.
Hillary Clinton: 717K Instagram followers, 5.2M Twitter followers.
Hillary Clinton won big in the Super Tuesday primaries, moving closer to clinching the Democratic nomination. She beat Sanders in every state, even if only by a slim margin in some, and now stands at nearly half the delegates needed to secure herself as her party’s Presidential nominee. Yet, despite her lead and momentum, Clinton’s content and campaign is not without its flaws.
Hillary Clinton’s political achilles heel is her relatability. She is the most experienced candidate in the running, with stints in the Senate and as Secretary of State. She is also known for her pragmatism and is more moderate than Bernie Sanders on most issues, which has traditionally been important for Democratic candidates to get elected.
However, polls have shown that she has a “likability problem.” To mitigate this problem, the Clinton campaign has made a concerted effort to cultivate an “everywo/man” persona (a la Taylor Swift). She actively uses social media platforms to relate to fans. Photos of Clinton ordering at Chipotle and a Pinterest page with “granddaughter gift ideas” aspire to show voters that “she’s just like us.” The Clinton campaign also shares quotes from strong women who support her, such as Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, and Mae Jemison, which position her as a modern day activist in a long line of powerful women.
However, other content marketing efforts have met with mixed results, especially those aimed at connecting with minority voters. Tactics like unveiling a Kwanzaa logo and publishing a blog post titled, “7 Things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela” received backlash for seeming to pander, thereby undermining her bid for authenticity.
According to Emarsys, 20 percent of Americans believe Hillary has the most effective marketing campaign. In spite of her hit-or-miss likability, her success points to a recognition that she is the Democratic candidate with the best chance of beating Trump, should he win the nomination, in the Presidential race.
Bernie Sanders: 616K Instagram followers, 1.26M Twitter followers.
Although he failed to win any Su[per Tuesday primaries outright, Sanders had a strong showing in most states, which points to passion and popularity he has cultivated. Most importantly, he appeals strongly to millennials, which have become a powerful voting base as we previously noted.
Of all the candidates in the running this year, Sanders is the most authentic and relatable, and that has been a key driver of his unexpected and meteoric rise. A study by George Washington University and Zignal Labs revealed that Bernie Sanders is the only candidate whose “echo” across the Internet has grown since the announcement that he was running for president.
The term “echo” is used because the message originates with the candidate themselves and echos across the web, and all the content surrounding the Sanders campaign does originate with Bernie himself. He has said that he “plays a very, very active role in creating content.” As a former journalist, Sanders clearly relishes writing and often publishes his thoughts and ideas in posts of varying lengths. By creating his own content, he conveys a strong voice and nothing feels forced. He is, above all, authentic, and as a result, highly appealing to authenticity-loving millennials.
On Instagram, Sanders features pictures of his supporters with their own quotes as the caption, followed by #HumansForBernie. These images feature a diverse group of individuals and position Bernie as a candidate who genuinely embraces diversity (as opposed to doing it for political gain). The main image on his website is Sanders with a closed fist raised in the air, which sends a powerful message of Sanders-as-revolutionary. Many Instagram photos show Sanders speaking in front of large crowds, which again displays the powerful message of “no one thought we could get here, but we did.”
Emarsys reveals that 21 percent of of Americans think Sanders has the most effective marketing campaign. Despite his relatable, authentic brand and his cult-like following, his ideological followers still represent a relatively narrow segment of the voting base, which has hindered his ability to overtake Clinton. “Uncle Bernie” may have strong content, but he likely doesn’t have enough moderacy to win the nomination.
Marco Rubio: 109K Instagram followers, 1.3M Twitter followers.
After being crushed in nearly every state and an embarrassing loss to Trump in Tuesday’s primaries in his home state of Florida, Marco Rubio dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination. Let’s look at how his content marketing and social media strategy evolved up until this point, and may have contributed to his demise in the voting booth.
Rubio’s campaign was heavily focused on social media, with him choosing to run his own accounts and post content himself, as opposed to having someone from his team put out content. Rubio’s Instagram is filled with imagery that portrays him as a warm and kind-hearted person, often posting pictures of him helping the elderly, playing with children and smiling at his supporters. However, where his strategy significantly differed from competitors is in the way he used humor to poke fun at the ridiculousness the presidential race.
Earlier this year, Rubio put out a video series with the hashtag “rubiocrimespree,” which aimed to make fun of the Washington Post story about him getting caught drinking as an 18-year old. While many people would be defensive about a story like that, Rubio’s reaction demonstrated his creative approach to making light of the media hype.
But as Trump surged ahead in previous primaries, most of Rubio’s written content shifted to focus solely on hindering Trump’s attacks. He posted an aggressive amount of content highlighting Trump’s failures, including posts about his shiftiness, vulgarity and flop at starting a university. By turning the spotlight, even in a negative way, back on Trump, Rubio failed to continue positioning himself as the ideal candidate. He lost the tone and humor that drew his followers in the first place. Instead of being viewed as the would-be Republican nominee, he wound up looking like a man running scared -- and fatefully so.
John Kasich: 19.1K Instagram followers, 222K Twitter followers.
After appearing to be losing steam in recent weeks, March 15 was a big day for Ohio Governor John Kasich. Many thought that he’d be out of the race by today, but he surprised those folks -- probably including Trump --when he won Ohio and now is the only candidate that has gained any sort of ground against Trump. Given the stark contrast between Kasich and Trump’s voices and content, it seems as if the sudden, albeit small, surge for Kasich is a knee-jerk reaction to Trump within the Republican voting base. Let’s examine further.
Out of all the candidates, John Kasich probably has the least interest in developing his own content strategy, which contrasts highly with the Trump marketing machine. Kasich’s blog primarily stands as a podium for announcing high-profile endorsers and syndicating news stories that he’s recently been featured in. Furthermore, his campaign updates are cold, impersonal and written in the third-person. Unlike some of his opponents who ooze personality in their content strategy, Kasich is blind to the importance of publishing authentic and meaningful content. Most of the pictures posted onto his Instagram lack emotion and depth, with the same monotonous picture of people standing with their backs turned at his town hall meetings. Additionally, Kasich’s tweets focus on urging people to donate to his campaign, rather than projecting his leadership and stances. That's in stark contrast with Trump, who spews his opinions constantly and has loudly proclaimed he does not need campaign donations.
John Kasich’s content marketing is a fairly accurate representation of his campaign and candidacy. Despite being a nice, likeable guy with strong qualifications, he is failing to “wow” today’s voters and comes off looking a little out-of-date, and impersonal -- the exact opposite of a questionably qualified, polarizing and viscerally-reactive Trump. Bearing this in mind, one could make a case that the pendulum might be swinging back to the other extreme, from the loud-mouth to the almost boring.
Ted Cruz: 42.7K Instagram followers, 906K Twitter followers.
Seemingly the only remaining legitimate competition for Trump -- outside of Kasich’s big win in Ohio -- Cruz’s political engine is starting to stall. Though he is still the closest candidate to Trump in the voting booths, Cruz failed to gain any ground in Tuesday’s primaries, which points to trouble for him in the road ahead.
Unlike his Republican peers, Ted Cruz’s content strategy is strongly geared towards publishing op-eds, with regular contributed pieces being published in WSJ, Washington Post, National Review and many other publications. His commentary tends to be long and provides thoughtful analysis on his strategy and vision, emphasizing his experience and his stance on nine specific issues (all things competitors lack).
Furthermore, Cruz’s social media game reflects his personal values and beliefs as a leader. Many of the pictures posted to his Instagram account signal his strong religious views and attitude towards the second amendment with images of him praying with his family before debates and exercising his gun rights. These types of images help to provide a personal view into the candidate, while also effectively showcasing his most important stances.
Despite reflecting the traditional values and core tenets of his party with his content, Cruz is lacking the emotional pull that Trump brings to the table. The Emarsys study reveals that 1 out of 10 Americans believe Ted Cruz is the top candidate when it comes to marketing themselves -- however, this will likely not be enough for him to successfully hinder Trump’s momentum.
Donald Trump: 897K Instagram followers, 5.81M Twitter followers.
Trump basically ran away with Tuesday’s primaries, getting ever-closer to clinching the nomination for his party. In an election filled with unpredictable people and moments, Trump’s success in the voting booth is becoming less of a surprise by the day. He is a marketing mastermind.
Trump’s campaign provides bold, no-apologies content. He created a brand long before his run for President, and he’s capitalizing on his name recognition. Trump is notorious for his willingness to say things that are considered offensive. While often rude, he has remained consistent in his no-holds-barred approach to politics. The Trump campaign is loud, unapologetic and relentlessly self-promotional (like him).
According to Forbes, Donald Trump’s strategy for success is pretty simple: He wants to be hated. Trump doesn’t care if you love him or hate him. He appeals to many Republicans who appreciate his distinct lack of political polish. They feel he is telling it like it is, and thus more trustworthy than the typical pandering, flip-flopping insider politician. Many find Trump to be rude and cringe-worthy (only 17.5 percent of millennials view him favorably), but either way, he elicits a strong reaction from the public, and that can be better than no reaction at all. As former President Bill Clinton said on Stephen Colbert, “He’s a master brander, and he’s the most interesting character out there.”
The Trump campaign has also struck a chord with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Website visitors are immediately greeted with the slogan, and the site is filled with bold content -- all caps and a lot of dark red graphics. There is no blog, but there is a section for media and press releases. The main page of the website features Trump’s live Twitter feed. Most of the images the Trump campaign shares are pretty generic, unlike Clinton, except for the smattering of celebrity endorsement photos, like Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty and Jesse James of West Coast Choppers.
The Emarsys study found that a good portion of Americans (37 percent) think Donald Trump is the candidate conducting the best marketing campaign. He may be the truest example of the old adage, “Any publicity is good publicity.”
Policies, plans and opinions aside, if the power of content marketing outweighs all others, I predict Trump will win the Republican nomination, and possibly even the Presidency. He crushes every other candidate in terms of his social media presence and following. The next closest candidate on any platform is Hillary Clinton, and she has half-a-million fewer Twitter followers than Trump. He is also the most recognizable of all the candidates. His brand is clearly defined and projected consistently, and for many voters, conveys authenticity. November is still eight months away, but Trump is winning the social media contest.