Make Marketing Great Again: 3 Lessons from the Campaign Trail

The lessons from 2016's presidential race can and should live on in the work of every brand marketer.

learn more about Michael Bassik

By Michael Bassik

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Are we there yet? A mere 15 weeks from now, the polls will open, the votes will be tallied, and we'll finally know whether our next leader is our first woman or our first reality television host.

Related: 2016 Presidential Candidates Placing Emphasis on New Marketing Techniques

The days and weeks that follow will be full of analysis of how we wound up #withher or #greatagain and whether (and how) we're building walls or tearing them down.

Every four years, such campaigns reinvent the wheel. Whether it was Lyndon Johnson's ground-breaking television ads in 1964 or President Barack Obama's mastery of technology and social media in 2008, each election cycle has provided us valuable lessons that marketers have then utilized and incorporated into their own campaigns.

This time around has its own "first": For the first time since 1952, a major party candidate has outright abandoned the certainty and security of paid media. Consider television, once considered the most important political communications tool.

Despite being outspent 15-to-1 on TV ads, Donald Trump was still effectively tied with Hillary Clinton heading into the conventions.

For those of us who obsess over these things, the only thing more unconventional than Trump's rhetoric has been his ability to remain competitive, forgoing 30-second spots for the free media TV interviews and Twitter posts provide him.

Campaign tactics between the two presidential nominees have differed in other, surprising ways. Taking a page from Obama's playbook, Clinton has relied heavily on big data to inform campaign decisions. "We are using math to help elect Hillary," starts one job description posted on her campaign website. As of this writing, the campaign lists over 10 open positions on the "Analytics" team, with searches under way for roles as varied as "Natural Language Processing Analyst" and "Survey Methodologist."

Trump, on the other hand, has been running a "data-free campaign." "I've always felt it was overrated," Trump told the Associated Press when asked about the importance of having a sophisticated data operation.

Despite their divergent approaches, the two campaigns have proven equally adept at reaching and influencing targeted audiences.

From their use of sophisticated targeting methodologies to their unwavering dependence on traditional email, the campaigns have presented other interesting and often useful lessons that apply to all facets of marketing.

Related: 5 Marketing Lessons Learned Watching Donald Trump Run for President

1. Online politics is retail politics, and every impression counts.

Every day is game day when you're running for president. Every hand shaken, baby kissed, event attended and door knocked is a chance to influence a vote and change the fate of your campaign.

In these high-stakes competitions, the campaigns fight for every vote in a one-on-one style known as "retail politics."

This style, when manifested online, means that every single ad and website experience is personalized to the specific recipient. By matching their efforts to offline voter-file data -- appended with various models (e.g., a person's likelihood to vote, own a gun, be Hispanic, support environmental causes, drive a Volvo, subscribe to the National Geographic, etc.) -- political campaigns are able to deliver granular messages to each individual and monitor how each ad or piece of content influences that person's opinions and behaviors.

According to one Democratic campaign consultant, even voters living in the same household in key states are being served different online ads and messages with varying images, colors and calls-to-action. These messages are altered even further by data gleaned from recipients' voting history, online behaviors and even offline activities -- such as whether they skip through the campaign's own TV ads.

Winning votes is hand-to-hand combat. So, maybe there should be no surprise that selling a candidate is like selling anything else.

2. When it comes to email, make it personal.

Friends write emails the way people used to write letters. Brands write emails the way they used to advertise in supermarket circulars. Political campaigns? They fall somewhere in between, mixing personal messages with a single, personalized call to action.

"When I think about why I'm running for president," Clinton offered her supporters in a recent email, "I always come back to one person: my mother." The email ended with: "Michael [that would be me, this article's writer], can you chip in $187 today?"

When was the last time you received an email like that from a brand? Probably never.

Another interesting thing is that, beyond their casual tones, emails from both Clinton and Trump are surprisingly light on graphics, are always "signed" by the author and feature just one personalized call-to-action based on your own prior actions and donations. This disciplined, personalized and personal approach results in open rates and engagement rates that would embarrass even the savviest non-political marketers.

So maybe this is something for you to think about: Stop mass-emailing graphic-intense catalogs and start considering a more personalized approach. Invite people to personally participate, just as the campaigns are doing.

3. Supporters crave exclusivity, and they're willing to pay for it.

Move over, branded content. Campaigns today are all about branded merch. From limited edition t-shirts designed by fashion icons to the world's most famous hat, Trump and Clinton have raked in millions while turning their supporters into walking billboards.

Beyond the obvious items one might expect to find in a candidate's online store, the campaigns today are selling iPhone cases, ties, socks, beer cozies, even decorative throw pillows which cost $55 each. All these items are emblazoned with slogans that reinforce your loyalty, broadcast your support and raise money for campaign activities.

Trump and Clinton have also mastered the art of the high-impact, low-cost contest. Want a chance to dine with George Clooney? Score a ticket to the musical Hamilton? See your name in lights? By signing up for text messages, giving up their email address, syncing their social media account or making an online donation, supporters receive news before it's public; or else they enter to win everything from a campaign button to access to events usually reserved for high-dollar donors.

So, pay attention: If you're selling something besides a candidate, such a quid-pro-quo approach just might turn your happy customers into your most passionate fans.

And that might be one of the secrets to making every day your own Election Day.

In the end, there can be only one victor in November, though the lessons from the campaign trail can and should live on in the work of every brand marketer.

Related: 4 Digital Marketing Wins From This Year's Presidential Candidates

Brands that bring a data-driven approach to every consumer interaction, that make communications more personalized and personal and believe in the power of digital media to surprise and delight will find themselves able to inspire their fans and win the day. They won't win the White House, but they may win something even better.

Michael Bassik

Managing Director and President, Global Digital Operations, MDC Partners,

Michael Bassik is managing director and president of Global Digital Operations at MDC Partners, a fast-growing and influential marketing and communications network. At MDC, Bassik supports the growth of the network's strategic communications, media and digital agencies. He is also co-founder of DSPolitical, a political technology and advertising network; co-founder of The Dutch Sprinkle Company, an innovative food company based on New York's Lower East Side; and a board member of Civic Hall Labs, a non-profit organization based at the intersection of technology, politics and government.

Bassik has been named to such lists as Advertising Age's "40 Under 40"; PRWeek's "40 Under 40"; and Politico's Player to Watch. His work has been featured in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and on NPR. His testimony before the Federal Election Commission helped bring about free speech protections for political blogs and digital publications. He is a graduate of American University's Washington College of Law.



Related Topics

Editor's Pick

Everyone Wants to Get Close to Their Favorite Artist. Here's the Technology Making It a Reality — But Better.
The Highest-Paid, Highest-Profile People in Every Field Know This Communication Strategy
After Early Rejection From Publishers, This Author Self-Published Her Book and Sold More Than 500,000 Copies. Here's How She Did It.
Having Trouble Speaking Up in Meetings? Try This Strategy.
He Names Brands for Amazon, Meta and Forever 21, and Says This Is the Big Blank Space in the Naming Game
Buying / Investing in Business

The 19 Covenants of a Standard Franchise Agreement

A quick look at the promises, rights or duties that the franchisee or franchisor owes to the other.

Thought Leaders

Facing a Tough Problem? Try These Hacks to Find the Solution You Need

Not every problem has easy answers, and that's okay. Here are four ways you can free yourself from gridlock when you're stuck.

Business News

A Mississippi News Anchor Is Under Fire for Quoting Snoop Dogg

WLBT's Barbara Bassett used the rapper's "fo shizzle" phrase during a live broadcast, causing the station to let her go.

Business News

These Are the Most and Least Affordable Places to Retire in The U.S.

The Northeast and West Coast are the least affordable, while areas in the Mountain State region tend to be ideal for retirees on a budget.

Growing a Business

This $150 Lifetime Subscription Could Help Your Business Make International Connections

Train your employees with this subscription to Babbel and be ready for international deals.


Thinking of a Career Change? Here Are 4 Steps You Can Take To Get There.

Author Joanne Lipman on what experience and science tell us about successful job pivots.