Social Media: Learning from Presidential Campaigns

09 Feb 2016

A nonprofit is a lot like a presidential campaign: They both have to fundraise and to maximize use of minimal money, all while cultivating and maintaining awareness. A successful campaign for either is built on a solid brand and reinforced by pinpointing the audience with social media. Let’s look at how the presidential campaigns are faring on this front.

Historically, presidential candidates had not cultivated a personal brand until Scott Thomas’ game changing creation of the Obama brand in 2008. You can find out more about this genius collaboration of artists in the book he wrote about the process of Designing Obama. In the short time since then, a comprehensive brand has become ubiquitous for candidates. No brand, no equity, no chance. Now that branding and design are mandatory in presidential campaigns, teams are looking to maximize their tight budgets by utilizing social media to further their brands. 

The nitty gritty of social media...

Everyone needs it, few know how to use it. First and foremost, know your people. This seems pretty straightforward, but it’s surprising how many candidates (and nonprofits) are sadly out of their element. When he was in the race, Lindsey Graham’s Instagram limped along, posting blurry, unengaging images to 2,300 followers and trying to compete with Bush’s 44K, Rubio’s 54K, and Trump’s towering 644K. A good social media strategy team knows that Instagram and Twitter engagement peak with the 20s to early 30s crowd and Graham’s audience just wasn’t there. Users love being retweeted or reposted supporting their candidate. But mostly they want to see relatable content, feel engaged and be entertained.

Another important aspect of good social engagement is branded content. Taking a page out of the Obama brand book, Ben Carson’s team has developed a style that uses the now typical “Democrat” look and feel (bold, bright colors and typefaces) to reach the younger audience that the Republican party is typically hurting for. His branded posts are clean with bright colors and matched with the one-two punch of a heavy sans serif typeface and a smaller slab serif (this looks remarkably similar to the Obama brand, but hey, it works). Moreover, Carson engages users with hashtags like #BC2DC2016 that are incorporated into all of his designed Instagram posts. Any campaign post that gets reposted or shared will be marked with his branding.

Marco Rubio has a lovely brand mark—it’s lowercase, round and inviting, yet his website is full of graphics that have no common thread among them.

Marco Rubio ADMarco Rubio Tie Dye AdMarco Rubio Israel AdMarco Rubio Obamacare Ad

Unlike Carson, Rubio’s campaign graphics could have come from anywhere. They contain no branded mark, so if this image is shared or reposted, Rubio has lost any attachment to the message.

The Clinton campaign is guilty of leaving their name off their graphics too, however, her brand look is so tightly defined, that it’s more easily recognizable and tied to her campaign. Still, Hill, slap that H on those posts!

Clinton social media postClinton social media post

Great Content = Better Engagement

Many candidates have great behind-the-scenes shots, and some even have great star power. For example: Hillary Clinton has selfies with Katy Perry and posts from Lena Dunham, while Sanders’ has photos with Mark Rufalo and lunch with Killer Mike—not only are those endorsements effective, but Clinton and Sanders know they’re speaking to millennials about relatable issues. Similarly, Jeb (or, Jeb!) has some great behind-the-scenes shots, reposts of younger supporters and images of college mascots, which is a great way to speak to the demographic he needs—college students. 

Demographically, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are less likely to use Snapchat, Periscope, and Instagram than early and late millennials, so the messaging needs to be pointed accordingly. On that note, if it isn’t business-related, don’t use LinkedIn—looking at you, Jeb. And always, always, always count on Facebook as the old reliable with the broadest reach of age, gender, etc. Good social media management is like architecture—form should follow function. Ben Carson makes good use of this on his Instagram, with beautifully designed, on-brand graphics and fun behind-the-scenes shots. He knows what his followers want to see. Creating effective and engaging social is a time investment, but if you don’t do it well, you might as well not do it at all. The internet can be a mean place and nobody likes a blurry photo (get it? LIKES).

And then out of left field, there’s Trump. He certainly knows what is working in his campaign—his off-the-cuff, not-spell-checked, says-what-he’s-thinking style of messaging. Therefore it’s fitting that Twitter has been the lifeblood of his campaign. There is no rhyme or reason to the Trump campaign, it’s a black hole of faux paus and PR nightmares. It’s an anomaly. It’s the exception that proves the rule. Trump, and Trump alone, knows how to walk the tightrope that is his campaign. Scientists will study this for years to come. Until then, I can’t in good conscience recommend following the strategy for anything that he has done.

There is a lot to be gleaned from the presidential campaigns. They can’t afford to half-ass social media anymore, and while new platforms come and go, the foundation will always be a solid brand. Consider it free advertising space. You wouldn’t put a blurry photo or use five different fonts in a print ad, and you shouldn’t do it on social. Good social media is an investment, and younger and younger audiences are donating, volunteering and supporting, so it is important to understand them. Do this right and it could be the beginning of a lifelong voter, donor, supporter, and volunteer.

See how we ranked some of the candidates’ social media campaigns below:

Jeb Bush Social Media Grade: BBen Carson Social Media Grade: A Hillary Clinton Social Media Grade: A+Ted Cruz Social Media Grade: C+ Marco Rubio Social Media Grade: B- Bernie Sanders Social Media Grade: B+ Donald Trump Social Media Grade: D/A? Shrug