Social Media and Presidential Elections

22 / January 2016,

Social Media and Presidential Elections

How Social Media Has Changed Presidential Elections

The 2016 election cycle has proceeded in ways no one imagined a few years ago. Party favorites have stumbled, particularly on the Republican side, and interlopers have emerged as viable candidates and even front-runners. People all across the country are showing combinations of excitement, fear, and wonder over the changing landscape while the political pundits slowly come to terms with a new worldview.

It remains early in the current presidential campaign season, and no one knows whether strong showings from surprise candidates will hold up over time. Still, the political world has undeniably been disrupted. A Bernie Sanders or a Donald Trump would not have been a viable candidate even four years ago; now, each has held or flirted with leads in various polls for their respective parties. Media members and party leaders who six months ago sat smugly waiting for the downfalls are now scrambling for explanations.

In an ecosystem as complex as that of presidential politics, defining a single reason for this kind of groundswell is quixotic, if not entirely foolish. Even so, we can safely point to social media as one crucial element. Those garnering higher than expected support for their campaigns have built masterful social media presences and sustained them throughout. They have spread their ideas quickly, with the help of fans and followers throughout the process.

In short, social media marketing of candidates has redefined the way we think about running a campaign. And when we examine these, we can find correlations to how to run a business’ social media marketing campaign. This redefinition manifests itself in at least five important ways.


1. Selective News Coverage

elections and social media pictureThis piece began years ago when, in 1987, the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine requirement of equal coverage for competing ideas. Prior to this, beginning in 1949, any controversial topic had to be covered in a way that was “fair, equitable, and honest,” a requirement generally translated as requiring equal time and weight being given to each side of an important argument. This change led directly to the establishment of viewpoint-specific news outlets, opinion news television, and the like.

In the decades following this, outlets have arisen on cable and online for any set of viewpoints a person has. It is not unusual for a person to receive all of his or her information about the world through a decidedly conservative or liberal filter. We have been given the right to know only what we want to know, and the ability to reject any source that does not cater sufficiently to our viewpoints.

With social media driving candidates’ spreading of their messages, the differences in how we view candidates become even more pronounced. Bernie Sanders can be a “grumpy old Socialist Communist whacko” on Fox News, and a “man who consistently stands up for Middle America” on MSNBC. Donald Trump can be “out of touch with America” on liberal outlets, and “a straight shooter who knows what this country needs” on conservative outlets. And in the homes of many Americans, these two viewpoints never meet.

On social media, this becomes even more pronounced, in two ways. First, many people use social media to pass on these viewpoints and are stunned to see that people disagree with them, or alternatively, see viewpoints so foreign to their own that they respond viciously, treating people who believe differently as idiots. Second, social media becomes a place of affirmation, with people unfollowing or unfriending people they disagree with, collecting instead a group of people who agree with everything they say. Politics as a result has become a breeding ground for widely divergent ideological stances, with a quickly vanishing middle ground.

For your social media marketing campaign, this can be instructive. When you post, you should be thinking of how to bring in the most people possible into your network. Controversial positions may get you noticed initially, but it will quickly lead to your network shrinking rather than growing. Instead, focus on material that relates to your business and what you provide. The group of people interested in these things represents the kind of people you want to hold in your network.


2. Politicians Outside the “Mainstream”

influence of social media on elections pictureTwo years ago, the parties’ national committees were preparing already for a battle between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, with few alternatives on either side given even a cursory consideration. Some spoke of someone like Ben Carson as someone to challenge Bush, but only as a foil to help hone the front-runner’s message and sharpen the campaign style.

Today, Bush is struggling to remain relevant, while upstarts Trump and Carson carry the mantle of current favorites, and the RNC looks for someone else to play the role of Establishment Candidate. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is eliciting a wave of excitement from left-wing progressives, and wailing and gnashing of teeth form the more centrist party establishment.

Well-run social media strategy forms a common thread that connects the surprising successes among these outsider candidates. Each of them has a fresh social media presence that sticks to campaign messaging, and in particular that fits well with the concerns of their followers. Rather than trying to be all things to all people, these candidates have been able to seize on what their bases believe to be important issues. Trump makes no apologies for who he is, and while his brashness may not play well in a general election, enough of the Republican primary voters love what he has to say that he has a legitimate chance at the nomination. Similarly, Sanders speaks plainly to a group ready for his progressive message and agenda. A general election seems unlikely to drive him back toward the middle, but in a Democratic primary, this makes him a real contender as well.

The rise of these candidates has not been an immediate arrival, but rather a process that builds on the ability of social media to push ideas quickly across a broad swath of people. News articles and profiles from outlets favorable to these individuals’ politics have proliferated, with searches and shares driving traffic and getting more and more people interested. The candidates stay on point and build their followings, and the campaigns gain strength.

This process should encourage business owners with little current traction in social media. Like a fledgling candidate, your business can benefit from solid, on-point marketing distributed across a network of people who care about what your company does. If you start by creating content that matters to people, and continue building your message consistently, that message will get out. Don’t try to be everything to everyone, but give the people within your company’s market and niche something that matters to them. If you build it, they will come.


3. Involvement from Everyone

social media experts company pictureOne of the most important reasons that these campaigns have grown so quickly is that the candidates do not have to do all of the work. Social media turns every campaign into a grass roots effort by involving the community of friends and followers as foot soldiers. Every Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders tweet gets retweeted, and every Facebook post gets shared, thousands of times. Every retweet or share reaches exponentially larger groups of potential followers, and each of these candidates earns thousands of new friends or followers daily as a result.

The candidates post their social media information on their websites for a reason. The power of the venue lies in its ability to spread messaging, and this in turn rests on making connections with people who will find it and care enough to spread it. Sanders’ followers have adopted the slogan “#FeelTheBern,” using it to not only promote their preferred candidate, but also to make it easier for voters to find tweets from like-minded individuals. The hashtag serves as an SEO term within the Twitter community, one that brings a community together to retweet and celebrate in a shared value system.

When you are looking for ways to market your business, you too can rely on strength in numbers and the constant spread of information across social media networks. You do not have to reach everyone yourself. So long as you are connecting with your current customers, they will give you the ability to reach more people every day through their own networks. Give them the kind of content that matters to them, content relevant to your company and what it can do, and you will set yourself up with the opportunity for consistent growth over time.


4. Every Gaffe Matters

Of course, one difficulty that can arise from relying on social media is that it not only captures every strong point you present, but also any stupid thing you post. We have long since passed the point at which candidates could say different things to different people, because everything a candidate says gets printed and examined against a career of data points. When John Kerry told environmentalists he did not own an SUV, then told a group of automakers in Detroit that he in fact owned six of them, his 2004 campaign was sunk.

The spread of social media makes this truth absolute. A whisper on an airplane or a comment in a closed door meeting takes little time to make the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. And once the statement is out, the friends of supporters who do not themselves support the candidate seek to exploit the moment. If a candidate says something he or she shouldn’t, the chances of keeping the misstatement or unfortunate remark quite are virtually nil. The best that can be done is to apologize and hope to move forward from that moment.

Of course, in this cycle statements that would normally be death knells to a candidate may not be. In social media and elsewhere, supporters of a candidate tend either to not believe the statement happened or to not care. Inconsistency, on the other hand, creates big problems for a candidate. Bernie Sanders has come under fire for not being sufficiently progressive on particular issues, and many conservative pundits have slammed Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio for being insufficiently conservative on issues like immigration reform. As soon as one post seems to conflict with the overall message a candidate is seeking to deliver, the candidate falters in the polls.

The takeaway from this for your business should be obvious: be careful what you post. People tend to remember negative ideas better and for longer than they remember the positive. If you post something that strikes a sour note with your customers, you may find yourself losing those customers and their networks in your social media marketing. Every post must be purposeful and directed at giving valuable information to your customer base. Like Trump and Sanders, you need to stick to your message and deliver what keeps people coming back to you.


5. Reaching Younger Voters

elections and social media pictureOne frequent complaint about politicians for decades, if not centuries, is that they badly miss out on reaching the concerns of younger voters. This should not surprise anyone, particularly at the Presidential level, given that most of these politicians have traditionally been older, white males who have spent their lives in privilege of some kind or another. A man who has worked toward this goal his entire life, rising among the ranks of a privileged elite, will understandably have trouble connecting to most younger people who have never sniffed that world. Politics further insulates these people from the non-political world, and from the young people whose lives they may only touch directly if they are the candidate’s own children.

Social media can exacerbate this problem in the hands of someone attempting to show connections to youth that do not exist. The online world is littered with examples of efforts gone wrong, of candidates seeking to appear “hip” or otherwise relatable for young people. Laugh lines or earnest efforts to sound cool tend to lead to the same place: jokes on late night talk shows at the candidate’s expense.

On the other hand, the candidates who are doing well with social media have struck upon something simple enough to work: they have built social media presences to tell the stories they have to tell, and hit on the issues that matter to them. Bernie Sanders makes no effort to fit in with twenty-somethings. Donald Trump, ever confident in the man he is, simply posts his bombastic self for people to either like or not. It is unclear whether this means they understand that younger voters like authenticity or, alternatively, they just aren’t consciously looking for those voters’ approval. Nonetheless, the approach is working.

When a business uses content to drive social media marketing, the same approach can yield huge dividends. Focusing too much on targeting specific groups of customers, whether by age, gender, or race, can leave you looking foolish, not only to everyone else but to those groups as well. Instead, build your social media marketing around who you are and what you do. You will never reach everyone, but if you stay true to your core message and company value, you can reach more than you will by trying to take aim at a specific demographic.


Building Your Campaign

Social media marketing, like social media campaigning, can present both opportunities and pitfalls. You have the ability to build quickly, to use your network to expand into those of others and grow a large base of contacts across Facebook and Twitter. You have the ability to identify what kinds of people respond most favorably to your message, and tweak that message and delivery until you are reaching those you need to find.

On the other hand, working too hard to focus on a demographic target can not only effectively exclude many from responding to your messaging, but can make you look silly in the process. When you rely on gimmicks to promote your material, you cheapen the value of what you do and what you provide for your customers.

When you are establishing your social media platforms, focus first on who you are. Trump and Sanders have shown that a powerful social media presence relies not on being cool or fitting in with a particular group of people, but rather on delivering a message that resonates, with the confidence to let that message do the talking. Do this with your social media marketing, and great things can happen.

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