Hail to the Chief: 4 Marketing Lessons from the 2016 Presidential Race

The election race is heating up as candidates use innovative digital marketing tactics.

The 2016 presidential election is heating up, but the voter landscape has vastly changed since 2012. The average voter hasa plethora of digital tools and entertainment platforms to choose from, such as mobile messaging and real-time streaming videos. Each presidential hopeful will have to make use of these communication forms to stand out and reach potential campaign volunteers, donors, and voters.

The total spend on traditional campaignadvertising like television and radio is expected to reach$5 billionby election day, with much of it going tolocal advertising. However, the audience size of these traditional mediumshas started to decrease, making it necessary for candidates to explore other mediums. And even though the presidential race has only just begun, there are already plenty of lessons for marketers on how to reach today's consumer within a short timeframe.

1. It's About the Data, Stupid.
In 2011, only35 percent of Americans had a smartphonewhen President Barack Obama launched his re-election campaign via online video, according to the Pew Research Center. Today it's closer to 65 percent. And not only do more people in the U.S. have smartphones, they are relying on them for more functions. For example, 1 out of 10 Americans do not have access to broadbandat home and solely rely on their smartphone to access the Internet.

Needless to say, mobile and other technologies will play a crucial rolein the 2016 election race. But while candidates have a bevy of new mediums and platforms with which to engage audiences, the real challenge is cutting through the noise and converting those audiences into votes. Chris Choi, deputy director of media at Blue State Digital, is well acquainted with this challenge.

Choi was a senior advertising strategist on the "Obama for America" team in 2011 and Blue State Digital provided digital strategy and technology services for the 2008 and 2012 Barack Obama presidential campaigns.

While Obama's campaign team was able to gain an advantage through a savvy data-driven strategy, the bar is much higher now. In 2012, "campaigns had yet to master demand side platforms, programmatic was new to many advertisers' vocabularies, and campaigns largely relied on personas for targeting," Choi notes. "In 2016, we've seen a real shift: Programmatic advertising has become the benchmark. Today it matters less what show you're watching or what music you're listening to - what matters is who is watching and who is listening."

Given that campaigns and agencies have access to the same third-party data and resources, Choi continues, candidates must find creative, smarter ways to gain an edge - to "pay less for an ad impression or show ads when other campaigns aren't," he says.

For example, instead of blanketing cities with generic mobile ads, candidates are increasingly reaching out to voters with targeted ads, notes Ray Kingman, founder and CEO of Semcasting, an ad targeting firm. "Mobile has become a prime means of communication for many people but you want your ads to be as effective as possible," Kingman says. "There a number of ways to reach people in specific areas, such as those who are near a political rally."

Semcasting offers an audience-targeting platform called Smart Zones that enables organizations to deliver mobile display ads to publisher sites that are targeted against voter or donor registration lists, as well as age, household income, and other demographic and psychographic information. Smart Zones identifies target audiences through a mobile device's IP address and matches it with similar IP addresses for certain areas. Voters, for instance, may start to notice ads on mobile sites reminding them to vote at the next primary or attend a town hall meeting or local rally.

The company is currently working on mobile ad campaigns for three presidential candidates, although Kingman demurred from naming the candidates. What he did say was that as the election race continues, voters can expect to see a wide range of ads aimed at mobile audiences. "We've also had agencies asking for second screen ads that they can run against TV and billboards," Kingman adds. "So this is just the beginning."

2. Let your Personality Shine Through
Accessing social media networks has become one of the most common uses for a smartphone, especially among Millennials. In fact,61 percent of Millennials get the majority of their political news from Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center. The leading presidential candidates have therefore wasted no time in jumping onto the social media bandwagon.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), has already amassed a huge following among young people with a savvy digital marketing strategy that ties in several channels. Sanders' official Facebook pagecontains a mix of articles, videos, photos, and posts. Additionally, the #feelthebern hashtagis used as an official tag across all social networks and his websitelinks to all of his social network accounts. His campaign team also produces "Democracy Daily," a sponsored news site that publishes articles about Sanders as well as aggregated articles from other news outlets about topics that resonate with his key voters and can be easily shared on social media.

On the Republican side, the campaign team of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex) is harnessing data insights from social media to identify the key issues that concern voters. For instance, Cruz's campaign team designed an experiment on Facebook to find out which issues were most salient among voters in Iowa, reports Bloomberg.

They placed display ads around issues like "outlaw traffic cameras" and "legalize fireworks" in the Facebook feeds of Iowans who identified as Republicans. An "Act Now" button redirected people to a landing page where users could enter their email addresses for more information. The landing page showed the name of a polling firm but it did not make a direct connection to Cruz. From there, the team identified the top local issues based on click-through rates and added the results to its microtargeting models. Such insights arguably helped Cruz edge out Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in the tight Iowa caucuses.

But while carefully orchestrated and data-driven messages are important, mastering social media is also matter of creating a distinct personality. Donald Trump, for instance, has emerged as a social media phenomenon with a tendency to make inflammatory comments that quickly go viral. Indeed, the immediacy of social media allows candidates to personalize their messagees and connect with voters in a way that wasn't possible before, notes Daniel Kreiss, assistant professor in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kreiss is also the author of Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama.

"I've noticed that all the major candidates on both sides of the aisle are using platforms like Snapchat to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the campaigns, which many of my students say they enjoy," Kreiss says. "It humanizes the candidate and makes them more relatable."

3. Remove Pain Points
Political fundraising is also undergoing a digital transformation. Social media is increasingly becoming a platform for candidates to not only engage voters but also raise money. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have each added donation tools that will be "very important" during the presidential election, maintains Gretchen Littlefield, president of Infogroup Media Solutions, which offers donor acquisition and retention solutions among its products.

Last month, YouTube introduced "donation cards" that can be added to videos. After watching a video, viewers can fill out a form and make a donation. Similarly, Facebook and Twitter recently added buttons that allow users to make direct donations from their respective platforms.

These features remove much of the friction that may have dissuaded people from making donations in the past, Littlefield notes. "The ALS association could have raised a lot more money from the ice bucket challenge on Facebook, for example, if people could have made a donation right after watching the videos," she says. Additionally, the ability to target ads on Facebook and Twitter makes it easier for organizations to identify and segment ideal donors in a more cost effective approach.

"With companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter making the donation experience easier, we're going to see social media start to produce real revenue for political candidates," Littlefield predicts.

4. Look for Meaningful Results
Despite the move towards digital-first strategies and communications, candidates are taking a cautious approach to digital marketing, say industry experts. The challenge behind digital marketing is one that marketers are familiar with: quantifying the results in meaningful terms.

It's easy to get caught up in the appeal of new technology, but "in reality, many of the metrics used to measure digital campaigns are still crude," Kreiss maintains. "Social media campaign managers can point to engagement metrics like shares and followers, but there isn't a clear way to ultimately tie those metrics to more meaningful results like votes."

Semcasting's Kingman estimates that roughly 95 percent of campaign media budgets were spent on traditional advertising like TV and radio commercials. "I'm willing to bet that digital in 2012 was about 5 percent of total spend for most political campaigns," Kingman says. "And in 2016 digital ad spend will be 10 times higher, but it's still not the majority."

As a result, 2016 will most likely usher in a lot of experimentation, while traditional modes of engaging voters such as through phone calls and TV ads will continue to dominate. And while the metrics for measuring TV audiences are also flawed, TV is a familiar medium. "Digital is something candidates are willing to do on a limited basis, but TV is still the proven tactic that most campaign managers will use," Kingman adds. "Because as one person put it, a campaign manager never got fired for running a TV campaign, but they will get fired for not running it."