The 2016 U.S. Presidential race was the first election where social media was not only employed as a campaign tool, but also as a weapon. While previously used largely for online organizing and fundraising, social media and digital communications dominated the 2016 election with viral tweets, hacked emails, and fake news sites driving the news cycle.
ust as the televised debates between candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 marked the moment TV took center stage in politics, the protracted Twitter fight between Donald Trump and his rivals may point toward social media as TV’s successor.
Trump’s direct access to millions of his followers through social media arguably allowed him to maintain his campaign’s momentum whereas an older system — in which the choke points of media exposure roughly correspond to the choke points of political power — would have shut him down long before he won the Republican nomination. Trump's facility with social media raises an important question: could a digital-only communications strategy have won him the White House?
At first glance, the declining popularity of live TV and the rising influence of social media, especially in politics, seems to support the idea. As of 2015, about 53% of Americans preferred to watch TV shows via streaming video, compared to just 45% who still prefer to watch live TV. For those ages 14-25, streaming is preferred even more.1 In the future, this disparity will only become more pronounced. When it comes to political news, 61% of millennials (roughly, born between 1980 and 1995) prefer Facebook as their chief source, as opposed to 37% who rely on local television. For baby boomers, those percentages are reversed.2
All this would seem to indicate a future in which live TV fades away as an advertising vehicle in politics. But don’t touch that dial just yet: when you dig into the 2016 campaign, the story that emerges is not so cut and dried.
MASTER OF MEDIA
Trump didn’t just use Twitter as a tool to propel his campaign, he used it to supplant traditional earned and paid media strategies. The digital reach of his tweets may have proved far less important than their reverberation throughout the legacy media ecosystem. In this sense, social media moments were no different from provocative TV spots or planned interviews, all of which Trump mastered long ago, and all of which he expected would be amplified through earned coverage.
In 2016, the spectacle of Trump, a skilled pitchman hitting his stride in a newfangled medium, smashing up the rules of political discourse, proved irresistible to the media. By some estimates, Trump’s earned media coverage throughout the campaign was worth $5 billion. In the hands of a less skilled self-promoter, social media would likely have been a far less successful tool.
And it’s essential to remember that Trump’s overnight political success was built on the persona he had crafted during decades in the limelight. Twitter is the latest tool of his celebrity, not its source.
Trump’s success with social media is also singular because it took place during a Presidential campaign, which is a political universe unto itself. The race for the top spot in the land generates more earned media coverage than any other political event on the planet. The drop-off in attention from there to down-ballot races, starting from the U.S. Senate and descending to local and municipal elections, is steep. Down-ballot, there is a much greater reliance on TV advertising to get the message to potential voters who would not otherwise encounter much of it, in any medium. In other words, while Trump has been an avid and controversial Twitter user for years, it took the media interest of a presidential election to bring him the spotlight.
So, could Trump have pursued a digital-only strategy to win the presidential election? The first thing to consider is that millennials, who so heavily consume social media, overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton, not Trump. Trump won by reaching a highly targeted segment of the U.S. electorate with a compelling message, not by swaying a majority plugged into a new dominant communications medium.
Second, while Trump spent far less than a traditional candidate on TV, the campaign did dramatically increase spending when voters were making up their minds.* What was Trump’s television strategy? “The impact of TV ad buys in 2016 was to serve as a hedge,” says Bill Cullo, Managing Director in the Strategic Communications segment of FTI Consulting. “You have single digit percentages of voters who are undecided, and TV ads are proven to have a fleeting impact on those same voters. So it’s worth the money.” By mid October, with just a few weeks to go before the election, Trump’s local TV ad spend surged in battleground states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Though his total outlay did not match Clinton’s in the same states, the Trump surge represented a massive increase over the previous months, rising from a weekly average of about $23,000 per electoral vote to $92,000.4 Trump’s campaign recognized that television ads would reach undecided voters late in the election.
Put another way, Trump may have captured the attention of voters with the spectacle of his campaign, but to reach the eyeballs of people in the crucial areas when turnout mattered, Twitter was no substitute for the reach of TV advertising. And in fact, FTI’s analysis of the election results showed that Trump performed well among these late-deciders.
Third, there is also a high level of uncertainty about the depth and reach of digital advertising in a crowded online universe. Consider the constantly-changing algorithms of Facebook, fact-checks built right into Google’s search and news sites, ad-blocking applications, a cottage industry of fake news sites, or even the fact that an estimated 37% of digital ad impressions come from bots and not humans.3 With that in mind, a digital- or social-only strategy seems even riskier.
“TV ads target households, places of residence, while mobile ads target wherever the user and the device may be at any given moment,” says Kristy Pultorak, Director in the Strategic Communications segment of FTI Consulting. “At my office in D.C., I’ll get digital ads for races in Maryland and Virginia, which aren’t relevant to me if I’m a D.C. voter.”
To Pultorak’s point, when an election depends on getting voters out of their houses and to the polls, it’s worth it to make sure you’re reaching as many of the right people in the right place as possible.
A COMPELLING MESSAGE
TV ads are still the most expensive form of communication for political campaigns, but they are an essential part of a coordinated campaign strategy. They remain the only place where a candidate can present his or her own, unfiltered, emotional video message to the public with widespread distribution built into the deal.
But whether through social media or on television, an advertisement is only as good as the messaging behind it. “Each medium has its own advantages,” says Brent McGoldrick, CEO of Deep Root Analytics. “Leveraging them for any campaign requires starting with an overall messaging architecture . . . in a multi-platform, fractured media, the art is to use each platform to drive the same messages and themes.”
From this vantage point, the future of strategic political communications isn’t about shrinking the universe of communications, giving up television for social media, but instead incorporating authentic social media messaging alongside TV, radio and print.
*Defined as spending by the Trump campaign and/or Republican National Committee, as opposed to Federal, multi-candidate Political Action Committee (PAC).
1: Spangler, Todd. "Streaming Overtakes Live TV Among Consumer Viewing Preferences: Study” Variety, April 22, 2015, accessed March 25, 2017
2: Mitchell, Amy & Jeffrey Gottfried and Katerina Eva Matsa, “Millennials and Political News. Social Media – the Local TV for the Next Generation?” Pew Research Center, accessed March 25, 2017
3: “37% of digital ad impressions come from bots,” THE WEEK, March 17, 2017.
4: Goldstein, John McCormick and Andre Tartar, “Candidates Make Last Ditch Ad Spending Push Across 14-State Electoral Map” Bloomberg, November 2, 2016, accessed March 29, 2017.