The Politics of Social Media

November 24th, 2016


Every election cycle we see the role of social media increasing and being used in new and different ways. During the U.S. election both campaigns prioritized social media as a tool to disseminate their message, engage and ultimately persuade voters. Marketers and communicators should take note that both campaigns were using very basic social media strategies, which also can be applied by business to grow engagement.

Campaigns from all political stripes are trying to engage voters of all ages and demographics through digital channels. The goal of any successful campaign is to turn engaged citizens into votes and this year’s election demonstrated how digital channels should and shouldn’t be used. 

Audience Targeting

While there was a lot of coverage and varying reaction to much of President-elect Trump’s platform, it’s important to recognize that he was (and still is) talking to a very defined segment of the American population within very specific electoral districts. The Trump campaign knew who their target audience was and created a message they believed would resonate with this audience – they were not swayed by the response of the public at large. For example, while many thought the campaign would have laid off his aggressive message of building a wall to protect the U.S. border, the call became louder and in some respects more aggressive with “build the wall” being a familiar chant at many of his rallies as they focused on specific voter targets.

Lesson – Once you know who you’re targeting the goal should be to ensure you have a message that will appeal to only this audience and not be swayed as you target your message directly.

Keep It Simple Stupid

Hillary Clinton used her social media platforms to promote her message of compassion and experience. To do this her campaign often used visuals to amplify the message, including photos of the candidate working with children and in high profile roles. In some cases they used the photos as memes, with words to complement the photo. This was a simple way to drive the desired narrative. With a different objective the Trump campaign used images from his rallies to demonstrate momentum.

Lesson – Use images to drive and amplify your message. It takes less time and will grab the attention of your audience. The old adage still holds true – a picture speaks louder than words.

Court Controversy

The Trump campaign strategy often appeared intentionally controversial to drive attention to their targeted message and ultimately force their opponent to respond. In some respects this strategy worked for the campaign, but not without significant risk. The Clinton campaign also leveraged controversy to drive their own messages – addressing Russian hacking of Democratic Party servers.

Lesson – Saying provocative things on social media can be an easy way to get noticed, however be sure of the headline you are seeking before you engage.


During the election both campaigns used surrogates to amplify their messages. Whether they were elected officials or members of the general public, both camps successfully leveraged multiple voices to reach a broader audience. 

Lesson – Using supportive stakeholders and notable followers to amplify any message is important. It not only allows them to communicate your message to their networks but gives the impression of broad support. Engaging with other brands or personalities who share a similar message and commenting and sharing their content could result in greater success on your channel.

Timing is Everything

The timing of social media posts during the election proved to be an important factor in both campaigns’ digital strategy. Both campaigns positively drove their messages through Twitter before, during and after each debate. They also recognized that on Twitter specifically, timing is crucial since the public is unlikely to scroll through a feed –and it’s important to ensure tweets are posted at the optimal moment. Conversely, timing can also override a message as Donald Trump’s middle of the night tweets generated negative attention, and allowed Hillary to characterize him as erratic.

Lesson – Forethought is everything. Having a well thought out and approved plan that includes crisis management makes it less likely for an unwanted post being uploaded and allows for social media to be integrated into an overall communications strategy to amplify a planned message.

While Trump’s election victory can’t and shouldn’t be solely attributed to how either current or past politicos have engaged social media (including Obama and Trudeau before them), it’s clear that social media is crucial to the overall success of electoral strategies… providing lessons equally appropriate to marketers.