Do Firebrands Have A Tech Advantage?

From Twitter to data-driven marketing, new communications technologies drive personalized conversations. That could give populists a leg up.

Take a quick look back at 2016, and it’s clear that the communications technologies transforming our world are also disrupting the way we elect our leaders. There’s the social media echo chamber. There’s real-time fact-checking. There’s online misinformation. And there’s the fact that President-elect Donald Trump, a man who rarely uses a computer, was able to turn his Twitter account into a key asset against Hillary Clinton.

It may seem odd that Trump has emerged as a social media guru. But that’s less surprising when you realize what revolutionary communications technologies do: they allow public figures and brands to engage in direct, personal conversations with vast constituencies. That personal engagement, at scale, makes disruptive communications technologies perfectly suited to put populist leaders on the map.

Trump seems to have grasped this. Just look at his tweets.

Much of the press around Trump’s tweets has focused on controversy; but if you really want to understand @realDonaldTrump, you need to begin with the personal tone. Consider, for example, this fairly typical Trump post:

Just landed in North Carolina- heading to the J.S. Dorton Arena. See you all soon! Lets #MakeAmericaGreatAgain!

Trump’s tweet is casual. It feels incredibly spur of the moment (just landed!). There’s a typo (“lets”). It might as well be a text from an old buddy who’s flown into town.

To understand how differently personal @realDonaldTrump is, just compare Trump’s tweets with Clinton’s. Clinton’s posts are meticulously crafted. They regularly reference Clinton in the third person. Right in the bio, we’re informed that “Tweets from Hillary signed -H”—which lets us know that most of the tweets you’ll see aren’t from Clinton, but from her staff. Trump’s tweets don’t sign off “-Donald,” presumably because all of Trump’s tweets are meant to come from Donald.

Yes, Trump’s tweets turned a lot of voters off—for very good reason. Yes, his own team had to lock him out of his Twitter account as November 8th drew near. But all those unbridled tweets invited us into a conversation with—as the handle implied—the real Donald Trump. The approach seems to have worked.

Trump took the idea of conversation-as-marketing to an extreme. But marketers have known for years that the days of one-sided marketing are long gone. Online content and comments—from social media, to customer ratings, to fan videos—have given consumers an unprecedented voice in their relationship with businesses. And the smartest brands have responded by engaging customers directly—doing things like changing customer service operations to respond to social complaints and putting fan content at the heart of their advertising. In the new world of communications technology, the consumer/brand hierarchy is flat. Nimble brands adapt accordingly.

It’s not just comments and content that have fostered the new dialogue. Big data—and the personalization it enables—is a huge factor, too. Once, advertising meant mass marketing; today, ads are custom-tailored to sell the exact running shoes, car, or travel booking that customers are looking to buy. Brands aren’t talking to many customers; they’re talking, personally, to one customer at a time.

Of course, conversation means bringing the brand directly to real people, and real people’s lives. That carries big risks: real life is messy, and things can easily go wrong. Just ask any social marketer who’s seen a good hashtag go awry; or any data-driven marketer who’s stumbled over the line between personalization and creepiness. For some marketers, those risks seem to outweigh the benefits—so they go light on the data, play it safe with social media; or, sometimes disastrously, let legal drive brand engagement.

Inevitably, the brands that play it safe fall behind their more conversational peers. But even as other brands succeed by joining the conversation, that doesn’t mean the risks go away. It also doesn’t mean that the risks aren’t bigger for some brands than others. For a brand like Trump’s—that’s both deeply populist and seems to thrive on chaos—there’s little to lose. But for more established brands and politicians, there’s a lot more at stake.

So: conversations win elections, and firebrands have more to gain from straight talk than mainstream politicians do. This could very well mean that, as politics and communications technology continues to change the way we vote, firebrands will have a major advantage. That, in turn, means we’re looking at the tech recipe for more firebrand populism—not less—as the years progress. Donald Trump might just be the beginning.

How will the mainstream politicians compensate for their disadvantage in that new tech world? That’s a question that every political player in American needs to start thinking about, right now.

Bill Wise is the Founder & CEO of Mediaocean, the leading software platform for the advertising world.