While everyone seems to acknowledge that social media played a pivotal role in the 2016 elections, a deeper analysis is needed. Both Trump and Clinton used social media extensively, but they used it differently. Those differences are crucial in understanding how Hillary Clinton might have used social media to change the outcome of the election.
We tend to think about social media in too broad a sweep. Not only do we need to look at how the candidates used Facebook versus Twitter (and other social media platforms), we also need to look at how they used each platform differently from one another.
Within each social media platform are a host of different functions and a wide range of audiences to target. Not only do candidates need to consider all of the different functions and audiences, but they need to consider which functions within each platform are the most useful for reaching which target audience.
Candidates must consider their goals for using each social media platform and each function within them. Among these goals are (in no particular order):
Organizing and mobilizing your base (distributed staff, volunteers and committed voters)
Marketing ideas (both your vision for the country and policy solutions)
Writing your own narrative
Writing your opponents narrative
Creating real accessibility, transparency and accountability to the voters
What should immediately jump out from this list is that social media can be used for many of the essential goals of a campaign. That means if a campaign is not developing the comprehensive strategies, tactics, staffing and organization of staff to achieve all of these goals, they are leaving value on the table. There is much more in this list than can be covered in a single article, so what follows should be considered only a first swipe at the whole analysis.
One of the apparent differences in the way Trump used social media compared to Clinton is that he focused heavily on marketing the idea of his presidency, especially at the vision level, to the whole country (the outside game). By contrast, Clinton tended to focus on using social media to organize her supporters, focusing less on marketing ideas and more on getting people to show up for events and getting them to say they are “with her” (the inside game).
“On the message delivery side of social media, Clinton left huge opportunities on the table. In particular, her campaign’s under-utilization of Facebook Live is substantial.”
On an idea level alone, Trump’s grand message was about what he was going to do for America and Hillary’s message was what America would do for her. If her slogan was reversed, for example, to read “She’s with Me,” it might have resonated much more broadly like “Make America Great Again” resonated.
It is ironic to note that the Trump formulation went against the JFK frame of “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” even while his policies were about government doing less for the country. And Clinton’s formulation took the JFK formulation of what you can “do for your country” and made it “what can you do for Hillary?”
These messaging differences matter tremendously when your primary point of contact with voters are 140-character tweets and 420-character Facebook wall posts. Sloganeering works on social media, but only if the slogan resonates with your audience. What we saw in this election was one candidate using effective slogans that were not backed up with substance and another candidate who was all substance with no effective slogans. What Clinton left on the table is the opportunity to create a powerful slogan that both resonated with voters and was backed up by substance.
On the message delivery side of social media, Clinton left huge opportunities on the table. In particular, her campaign’s under-utilization of Facebook Live is substantial. This is a classic case of trying to get a grip on technology that launches after a campaign is in full swing. While Facebook Live was initially launched for verified users on August 5, 2015, it was not made accessible to everyone until April 6, 2016.
Consider the 2008 Obama campaign as an example of the challenge presented by technology launched after a traditional presidential campaign is launched. About five weeks before Election Day in 2008, volunteer developers gave the Obama campaign an iPhone app. When asked why the campaign did not develop its own iPhone app, its point staffer for mobile strategy Scott Goodstein reminded everyone that when the budget for the campaign was developed (at the beginning of the campaign cycle), the iPhone did not exist.
Traditionally, presidential campaign budgets are set up front and fundraising is designed to meet the costs laid out in them. This is perhaps why Donald Trump’s non-traditional campaign was more willing and able to embrace Facebook Live than the Clinton campaign. As a result, Trump used Live to flood voters across the country with notifications about 21 broadcasts in the last four days of the campaign (amassing 45 million views), while Clinton used that Facebook function 3 times in the same stretch (with only 14 million views).
And Clinton left even more on the table when she missed the opportunity to simulcast her big GOTV concert to Jay Z, Beyoncé, LeBron James, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry’s Facebook pages. Had she used a platform like Shindig, she could have pushed the feed out to all of their Facebook Live channels and their 135 million plus page fans. Had she done that, she would have reached more people with that one Live broadcast than Trump did in his 21 final days’ broadcasts. That is a lot of social media value left on the table.
Shortly after the 2008 Obama campaign, I hosted a panel of experts at the Center for American Progress to assess his use of digital strategy. That campaign was being hyped for its groundbreaking use of social media, mobile, email, web and online ads. But the consensus of the expert panel was that the campaign could have done better. Such a pronouncement is always easy in hindsight. But, as we saw in 2012, the Obama re-election campaign learned its lessons from 2008 and improved their campaign, elevating their former Chief Information Officer Michael Slaby to be Chief Integration Officer (as in data integration). From that lesson learned we got Narwhal and the birth of Big Data for Presidential elections.
But both the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns used social media as much to organize its supporters as it did to market its ideas to voters across the country. It used a resonating slogan that was backed up by substance. And it worked. It was the combination of the inside and outside games that created his success.
Earlier in the 2016 campaign, it seemed that Trump was all about the social media outside game, using it to market his vision to the whole country, but with very little apparent inside game organizing it supporters on the ground. Meanwhile, Clinton was hard at work developing and implementing a comprehensive inside game, using social media and video to talk to her supporters, while struggling to resonate outside of her base in the face of Trump’s ability to define her to the country in his outside game. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, emerged Trump’s inside game in the final stretch. It took nearly everyone by surprise (maybe even Trump himself). And with his ultimate combination of an outside and inside game, driven to a significant degree by social media, Trump won.
And now we sit here waiting to exhale. Raise your hand if you can hold your breath for four years.