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Digital Media

Is Digital Media the Next Political Battleground?

By Erin Mulrooney, Ashley Shuey and Megan Egan

No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, the 2016 presidential election has been entertaining, unconventional and thought-provoking, with much owed to online media—and social media in particular. And as we take a look at the election through the digital media lens, it begs the question: Does the trick to attaining the highest office in the land have anything to do with winning the battle on social media?
In 2008, we witnessed how social media transformed the election cycle and made history. President Barack Obama’s 2008 run was widely hailed as the “Facebook election” because of Facebook’s dominant role in securing Obama’s presidential win. In the 2012 election, Obama’s campaign spent upward of $47 million in digital ad campaigns. By contrast, Mitt Romney spent $4.7 million. Obama’s victory post that year still holds the record for the highest interaction rate of any post on Facebook to date.

Since then, social media has been amplified tremendously and has, in some cases, surpassed traditional news media—both as a primary “news” source and in terms of the number of people being reached. Channels like Twitter and Instagram allow candidates to speak directly to voters. We saw for the first time Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush turning to Snapchat to announce their presidential campaigns, taking advantage of Snapchat’s “live story” feature. In real time, people are voicing opinions, driving conversations and engaging with supporters. Social media is influencing a campaign’s narrative, and those who are best able to control this power will come out on top.

Roughly a quarter of U.S. adults (24 percent) turn to social media posts from either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as a way to keep up with the election—according to the Pew Research Center. How can we as digital media professionals learn from this revolutionary new way of marketing and scale down these strategies to fit our own brands?

  • Know your audience: Understand who your followers are and tailor messages to their values, beliefs and interests. Both Clinton and Trump have been effective by creating content and messaging that motivates their supporters to take action. Paid social media efforts also allow messaging to be more strategic and relevant. But politicians have also come under fire for over-targeting some online messages in an attempt to relate too specifically to particular audiences, especially millennials.
  • Utilize video content: Video content has become an important part of the online experience and political scene. Hosting a live-stream/live chat or using the “story” function is a great way to be “in the moment” and boost your social impressions.
  • Know the difference between paid and organic social media. Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn all have outstanding business ad platforms that allow advertisers to promote content using extended audience targeting layers. Sure, interesting content may get attention on your social channels, but in order to really reach audiences outside of your established networks, dollars need to be spent.
  • Different channels hit different users. According to, 98 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 utilize a social media platform at least once a month. Each platform has its own pros and cons, and messaging should be catered to fit the intended audience and not duplicated across all social channels.
  • Be agile. Digital media has allowed candidates to respond to changes in sentiment and to react to current events (and each other!) in real time. Brands also need to be able to adjust content and tone based on the rapid-fire pace at which social media allows us to consume online media.

The days of traditional presidential campaigning and advertising are long gone, and online presidential campaigning is the new normal for millennials and the generations to follow. As the election rolls into the homestretch, both candidates will make their final push for votes. Have we reached the point where one status update, tweet or post could make or break either candidate in this memorable presidential race? Only time will tell.

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