Steven D. Ward, M.P.A.

Foreign Assistant Professor of Political Science; Chosun University

How the 2016 Election Changed Marketing Forever

Have you ever gone on public record (I mean radio, TV, or newspaper) saying something you were certain about, only to be proved wrong?

Some people might shrug it off. In the case of the 2016 Presidential election, though, the explanations I was hearing didn’t cut the mustard and I just couldn’t get into the Christmas spirit for my daughters until I figured out what I’d missed. This, you see, was personal.

I teach political science, have a weekly radio show where I talk about politics, and am routinely interviewed by journalists for my political analysis. I had gone on the record last year predicting the election would turn out very differently.

I was dead wrong.

I couldn’t rest until I figured out what we all had missed.

Diving into the research

Of all the reasons why the pundits, including myself, were wrong about 2016, one in particular stands out: a new way to use digital marketing strategies by political campaigns that flew completely under the radar.

A few years back, a Psychologist by the name of Michal Kosinski developed a set of psychographic categories based on people’s public social media profiles. In other words, by looking at the TV programs people like and the websites they visit, Dr. Kosinski was able to predict surprising details about their lives including their education and income levels, and political beliefs.

From this work, a company by the name of Cambridge Analytica developed a method of micro-targeting people that were pre-disposed to certain political messages and used the Facebook advertising platform to put highly customized messages on their news feeds.

Who was this company working for? In England, they worked for the politicians that supported the BREXIT vote, which took everyone by surprise. In the United States, Cambridge Analytica worked for, you guessed it, Donald Trump.

No matter how you feel about Trump and BREXIT, there is no denying that they both stunned the world.

It turned out that this academic connection was the easy part. The difficult part, was actually diving into the world of professional digital marketing agencies and figuring out their strategies and tactics. An afternoon of reading Dr. Kosinski’s journal articles grew into months of learning, networking, and personally practicing these tactics. The rest of this post goes into the key takeaways from this deep-dive that I feel any political campaign, advocacy group, or business can benefit from.

What Business are getting wrong about digital marketing

The same strategies Trump’s campaign used can be used to help businesses target new customers with stunning accuracy.

There are three main avenues where these strategies apply:

  1. Facebook advertising campaigns
  2. Google AdSense
  3. SEO

Now, buying ad placements on these services is nothing new. Many small and medium sized businesses have already thrown a lot of money at them, to mediocre results. In fact, millions of dollars are thrown away every year for two reasons: companies don’t know how to do the micro-targeting probably and they don’t have the right sales funnel in place.

What is a ‘Sales Funnel?’

Grouping people by their psychological profiles was only the first phase of Cambridge Analytica’s brilliant campaign. The second step was making sure that when someone clicked an ad, they would land on a website that triggered the right emotions for their profile. That website is called a ‘landing page.’ A landing page is the first step in a sales funnel; a series of pages that lead a customer to make a purchase, join your email list, or get in touch with you in another way.

There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that the micro-targeting for many local businesses is not quite as complex as what Cambridge Analytica had to do in order to sway public opinion completely under the radar of the pundits and pollsters. On the other hand, a business’ funnel needs a lot of consideration. Furthermore, the most effective funnel for a business can be different depending on whether the campaign is being run on Facebook, Adsense, or via SEO.

The Right Tool for the Job

Okay so if you are a medium-sized business owner interested in running a digital marketing campaign, how do you know which one is right? It basically breaks down like this:

SEO -> Long-term strategy for search engine discoverability

AdWords -> For services usually needed quickly (emergency plumbers, locksmiths, etc.)

FaceBook -> Services that customers need but may not be aware of it.

In reality, these services are not mutually exclusive. You can mix and match for different purposes.

Think about it this way: If you have a situation at your house that demands emergency plumbing services, do you pull up Facebook? No, of course not. You go right to Google. You search for “emergency plumber” with your zip code, and when you see an ad that says, “We can be there in an hour or less, guaranteed,” that’s the one you are going to click.

On the other hand, if you are killing time on Facebook while waiting in line at the bank and you see that same ad, it’s not going to do much for you, unless you see it hundreds of times, so that that particular company is the first thing you think of when you DO have a plumbing issue. This marketing strategy was the M.O. for radio and television marketing for decades, but it is not cost effective for digital marketing campaigns.

Instead, that plumbing company, if it really wanted to market on Facebook, should put out an ad that says, “When was the last time your plumbing was inspected? Free inspections for a limited time only!”

The Tip of the IceBerg

We have only scratched the surface of what digital marketing can do. When Obama was first elected, people lauded his marketing campaign. You know what he did? Fundraising by email.

It seems so simplistic now, doesn’t it? Can you imagine how different elections will be in the year 2020? Or even just 2018?

The internet is changing our world in countless ways, but the democratization of technology is, in my opinion, the most exciting one of all. It is now possible for somebody to write a book in their spare time, self-publish it, and compete with Stephen King.

I can’t tell you what is coming next, but in the mean time the ones we have are only going to spread. These digital marketing strategies are cheap, precise, and effective if you know how to do it the right way.