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Breaking Down the Tactics and Tools the Presidential Candidates Are Using Sure, President Obama used social media to help him win the 2008 election. But 2016 is a very, very different animal. Millennials, anyone?

By Sujan Patel Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Rebecca Cook | Reuters
Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich pose together at the start of the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016.

While elections happen only every four years, 2016's candidates -- like those before them -- have gotten a good a head start on their campaigns in order to get their message in front of as many voters as possible. Often, presidential candidates will launch their bids for office a year or more before the actual November elections.

Related: 4 Ways Technology Has Impacted Presidential Elections

In their efforts to carve out their own political niche, these candidates face struggles similar to the ones leaders in business face. Not only do the candidates have to get their messaging correct, they also have to use the right channels to promote that message, together with their personal brand. It's here where things get interesting: Like businesses, campaigns will often change in reference to technology and tactics, and innovation will carve out new ways for the candidates to connect with their "customers" -- the voters.

Still, while 2016's presidential race is similar in this respect to past campaigns, it's . . . different.

The 2008 election showed just how powerful social media could be in driving votes, and President Barak Obama's 2008 campaign was, and is, widely viewed as the first general-election campaign to focus on social media as its primary mode of marketing (Howard Dean's bid for the 2004 Democratic nomination also used social media heavily.)

For instance, just after Obama's November 2008 election, U.S. News & World Report proclaimed that, "The Web, a perfect medium for genuine grass-roots political movements, is transforming the power dynamics of politics. There are no barriers to entry on sites like Facebook and YouTube. Power is diffused because everybody can participate."

So, yes, the use of social media has borne out U.S. News' proclamation: It seems inconceivable today that Senator John McCain elected not to use social media during the 2008 election. (That will likely be the last time in history a presidential candidate opts out of some form of social media or digital marketing!)

Yet, digital marketing innovation has come a long, long way since Obama's 2008 campaign; and it's apparent how, in 2016, candidates are using social media and other channels in new ways to market themselves.

Here's a look at some of these new tactics the candidates have been using in their bid for the Oval Office in 2016. (Note that this article is in no way a political endorsement of any candidate.)

Donald Trump: Twitter master

While many marketers see the digital web and social media as a means to engage an audience, Trump has latched onto social like a bullhorn -- and those moves appear to be working. According to a study from Emarsys, a marketing software company, 37 percent of Americans believe that, from a marketing standpoint, Trump has the most effective presidential campaign.

That's due mainly to the fact that -- according to Trump's supporters -- he says what other people believe but are too afraid to say. And he says it mostly on social media. Trump takes to Twitter with ferocity, declaring his anger at the loss of a once-great nation. He's quick to light into anyone who tries to overtake him or call him out.

The pundits have taken note. Michael Barbaro of the New York Times, for instance, had this to say about Trump's social marketing via Twitter: "Mr. Trump has mastered Twitter in a way no candidate for president ever has, unleashing and redefining its power as a tool of political promotion, distraction, score-settling and attack -- and turning a 140-character task that other candidates farm out to young staff members into a centerpiece of his campaign."

Those guerilla tactics and the lack-of-a-filter viral gains they achieve are giving Trump a serious advantage when it comes to PR and press coverage.

As for digital visibility, news can help you keep your brand in front of an audience, and keep it there with consistent coverage. ROI from press tends to remain positive, and Trump has consistently outpaced other candidates from both parties in online mentions. Proof? As of March, Trump had been mentioned over 160,000 times in the press – 100,000 more times than Hillary Clinton, and more than 120,000 more times than Bernie Sanders.

Trump, then, has a pretty clear understanding of how to get in front of his audience and how to keep the buzz centered on himself. He even leveraged the entertainment sector – much the way Obama did during his campaign -- by hosting Saturday Night Live. During that episode, 9.3 million viewers tuned in. That was SNL's largest audience since 2013.

The takeaway: Donald Trump may not be utilizing every channel available to him, but he has a strong grasp on understanding his audience, effecting the right messaging and demonstrating how to mix "entertainment" in with his message to improve engagement and truly drive social shares.

Related: 2016 Presidential Candidates Placing Emphasis on New Marketing Techniques

Hillary Clinton: 'I'm just like you'

Clinton's use of social media channels is arguably the most effective out of all of the candidates'. She has:

  • 5.6 million Twitter followers

  • 2.7 million Facebook likes

  • 920,000 Instagram followers

But numbers alone don't necessarily mean that much. Her effectiveness comes across in how these social platforms are utilized: Clinton, for instance, launched her campaign using YouTube and Twitter, but she also frequently engages her audience on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and even Snapchat.

To make her social presence stand out, she uses trending hashtags, allows influencers to take over her social accounts and demonstrates humor within her posts. The Democratic front-runner even took to Periscope to livestream campaign events and set up a campaign-inspired Spotify playlist.

And it's her direct engagement with individuals that's really driving her social shares. In July 2015, a photo was posted by Humans of New York, a popular Big Apple-centric blog. Clinton's offering featured a weeping youth quoted as saying, "I'm homosexual and I'm afraid about what my future will be and that people won't like me."

The photo brought a great deal of attention and controversy. Clinton responded: "Prediction from a grown-up: Your future is going to be amazing. You will surprise yourself with what you're capable of and the incredible things you go on to do. Find the people who love and believe in you -- there will be lots of them. -- H"

It was a simple comment on a picture on Facebook, but her comment went viral, and is proof of just how powerful a small bit of content can be on social media platforms.

Outside of social media, Clinton is also pushing hard on the digital ad front. Digital Marketer analyzed digital ad creatives used by Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and discovered that Clinton was winning in share of voice, measured by the sheer volume of ads and networks used to get her ads in front of voters.

Notably, Clinton has adopted an "everyman" (or "everywoman") position to show her followers that she's just like them.

This has included her first-ever Instagram photo of a selection of pantsuits in red, white, and blue, captioned "Hard Choices," a clever nod to her book, and of course a colorful patriotic reference. She also shares her interests openly on Pinterest.

There was also the time she put on dark glasses and hit up a Chipotle for lunch shortly after announcing her campaign being about "everyday Americans." According to a subsequent New York Times headline, she was "Just an unrecognized burrito bowl fan at Chipotle."

Clinton's team even took an edgy step into the content-marketing game, with Buzzfeed-type blog content that could be considered hit-or-miss. An example: the somewhat cringeworthy "7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela," using the Spanish word for "grandmother." It featured images and GIFs in a listicle format. Interestingly, the URL said "8 ways…" Maybe one of them didn't make it past the editor.

Just like in all marketing, you can't knock "em out of the park every time.

The takeaway: Like Trump, Clinton has put a consistent persona into her personal brand, to connect with her target audience -- something every brand should be doing when it comes to marketing.

Bernie Sanders: content marketing king

Sanders may be the oldest declared candidate in the running, but he is widely believed to be the content marketing king of the 2016 presidential race.

According to a study by George Washington University and Zignal Labs, Sanders is the only candidate whose "echo" across the Internet has actually increased since his initial announcement of his bid for the presidency. The study followed the mentions of the candidate across the web, and his traction, focusing on social channels, blogs, articles, and websites.

According to a New York Times article, when questioned about his use of content, Sanders said he "plays a very, very active role" in creating the content.

Overall, the Sanders campaign excels in its use of long-form content and devotes special attention to education and values. On the Sanders website, an "Issues" tab offers in-depth content on the areas central to his campaign. The content on issues is well written and informative, and takes the time to outline the concrete steps Sanders will take to address them. The addition of research and statistics adds to his credibility.

His team takes content marketing one step further by including aggregated news stories relevant to Sanders' policies, curating the most relevant information into a single feed on his website, called "Democracy Daily," focusing on what Sanders cares about most and providing easy social sharing options.

Outside of his content marketing, Sanders' outreach on social media has a run-of-the-mill push to get the millennial vote. However, he is making considerable noise on ad purchases, as his team aggressively blankets Facebook and Instagram with ads targeting that demographic.

The Iowa caucuses were a good illustration: The New York Times reported that the Sanders campaign spent more than $350,000 in advertising targeting millennials on Facebook and Instagram. It was one of the largest and most aggressive advertising campaigns ever undertaken by a political campaign on those social platforms.

From January 20 to February 1, in fact, the Sanders campaign reached more than 750,000 people on the two platforms in Iowa, with a six-figure investment, 85 percent of which targeted the millenniial bracket, according to Facebook.

At the center of this aggressive social campaign has been Facebook Canvas, that platform's new interactive ad unit designed for mobile devices. The Sanders campaign has used Canvas to advertise voting locations, registration, FAQs and links to the candidate's campaign website. Sanders' is the first political campaign to take advantage of its capabilities.

The takeaway: While Sanders' team may not be innovating in social engagement, it is taking the other candidates to task with strong content marketing and some serious social ad spends to get visibility for his brand and messaging.

Ted Cruz: making sure he's got the millennials' ear

Ted Cruz wasn't far behind Clinton in adopting a variety of platforms to launch his campaign and deliver his message. For example, Cruz made his bid for office known on March 23 last year by live-streaming his first major speech. He then used various platforms to push traffic to his speech, focusing on the fact that users could hear what he had to say unedited and uninterrupted by media outlets, pundits and radio hosts.

Part of the success of his announcement speech was that he made it at midnight -- when most of the 18-to-30 crowd is active on social media -- showing his campaign's intention to target millennials.

Inbound marketing and engagement aren't the only things that can be done when it comes to campaigning and the use of digital channels. A report from the The Guardian claimed that the Cruz campaign was using psychological data on millions of Facebook users. The Guardian alleged that Cruz's campaign contracted-out the creation of "detailed psychological profiles about the U.S. electorate, using a massive pool of mainly unwitting U.S. Facebook users, built with an online survey."

If the allegation was true, it might be considered a questionable research method;and it would likely raise some privacy concerns. But it also shows the power of the data available through social channels that could give a political campaign an edge. It certainly wouldn't be the first time privacy became a concern on social media.

The takeaway: Cruz very directly targeted the millennial crowed when he made his announcement speech at just the time twenty somethings are most active on social media. But did he also contract-out detailed psychologial profiles about the electorate based on Facebook data?


The question really comes down to how much attention should be given to new technologies when a candidate is running for a political office as important as POTUS. How is the technology prioritized? Is it something that should be leveraged because everyone else is using it? How can candidates use it differently to get their message across and engage their audience?

Related: What's Behind the Trump Juggernaut

A glimpse at just these few presidential candidates reveals how polticians -- like businesspeople -- are making the digital web a top priority these days. Apparently, the road to the Oval Office is paved with innovation and new technology. Individual candidates just need to figure out how to leverage it better than everyone else.

Which presidential candidate do you feel has the strongest digital marketing presence? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Sujan Patel

Entrepreneur and Marketer, Co-founder of Web Profits

In his 14-plus years as a marketer and entrepreneur, Sujan Patel has helped hundreds of companies boost online traffic and sales and strengthen their online brand reputation. Patel is the co-founder of Web Profits and Mailshake.

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