Patrick Thoburn, Vice President and General Manager, Digital
As U.S. President Joe Biden takes office, it’s worth reflecting that while his victory in the popular and electoral vote was decisive, the ‘winner-take-all’ nature of the U.S. system means victory relied on razor-thin margins in battleground states.
What made the difference? Many small things, and one big one: a near-flawless digital strategy that overcame the advantages afforded his incumbent opponent.
U.S. elections have long been a testing ground for digital innovation. A now-forgotten Democratic candidate, Howard Dean, pioneered email fundraising in 2004. Barack Obama’s digital engagement “ladder” helped him win the presidency in 2008. And Donald Trump’s team effectively created “alternative universe” to engage, enrage and mobilize its supporters – most recently with alarmingly violent consequences. In 2020, the presidential campaigns spent more than $700 million after September 1st on Facebook and Google alone.
What lessons can communicators take from Biden’s digital triumph?
1. Strength in numbers on Facebook can come from like-minded friends
Biden entered the general election campaign a long way behind Trump’s 33 million followers on Facebook, social media’s biggest platform. Biden never closed the gap, one of several structural challenges he faced in challenging a president who had doubled down on Facebook advertising in 2016, amassing a giant audience. Facebook’s analytics platform, CrowdTangle, shows how right-wing voices, especially Trump’s, dominated the most engaging organic posts throughout the 2020 campaign.
Instead of trying to compete head on, the Biden campaign chose to convene a loose alliance of 11,000 progressive publishers on Facebook to help distribute the campaign’s message. Pages such as Occupy Democrats, with more than ten million followers, cooperated with the Biden campaign, offering both social media insight and distribution of campaign messaging to fight Trump’s misinformation. This ‘rebel alliance’ cooperated over encrypted chat app Signal and pushed out Biden messaging at key moments, giving the campaign a bigger reach that it could achieve on its own.
Lesson: For political, advocacy and cause marketers, coordinating organic social media efforts with like-minded pages with large followings can dramatically increase reach and impact.
2. Twitter serves a high-information audience who may not be your target
With an understanding of the type of voice that plays well on Twitter, Biden’s campaign achieved strong engagement on its posts, but reach remained a fraction of Trump’s throughout the campaign. Before he was banned from Twitter for inciting post-election violence, Trump’s mastery of the platform was such that he could create communities of conspiracists with a single hashtag such as #BidenCrimeFamily. Even before Twitter banned political advertising, Biden’s team chose to hold its fire on the platform, investing few resources in a platform that held limited upside. The campaign focused instead on Facebook, where it had a better chance to reach the swing voter target they called the ‘Facebook moms.’
Lesson: Twitter reaches a smaller, ‘high information’ audience who may not be a useful target audience in mass audience campaigns.
3. Emerging platforms are playing an important role
TikTok doesn’t run political ads, and Biden’s campaign chose to not have an official presence as a matter of policy. There is no question, however, that the platform made an impact. Mobilized allies such as Biden Digital Coalition, paid by the campaign to promote content, saw organic reach of 12 million on one video alone. Organic reach on TikTok led the Biden campaign to see greater reach there than on any platform other than Facebook.
The Biden campaign innovated with in-game advertising, meeting audiences on their own terms, in a successful effort to engage young voters. In a Fortnite takeover, players learned about Biden’s economic platform. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Among Us livestream on Twitch routinely peaked over 400,000 streamers. (Even Canadian NDP leader Jagmeet Singh eagerly made an appearance.) These innovations offer a window into the future importance of a gaming strategy for campaigns.
Lesson: Emerging platforms can deliver major audience reach, especially with a young audience.
4. YouTube creators led the influencer strategy
Given Biden’s deficit in organic reach on Facebook, partnerships with cultural influencers such as podcaster Brene Brown and celebrities like Dwayne Johnson played an important role in reaching undecided voters. While Instagram and Facebook influencers were in the mix, the campaign paid particular attention to non-political influencers on YouTube. Biden’s campaign was playing catch-up on YouTube, where right-wing candidates such as Trump and Ted Cruz had long cultivated relationships with independent creators. Why? Polling shows it’s an essential source of political news for young voters.
Lesson: YouTube creators have emerged as a highly influential source of information for young audiences – an audience to cultivate for both short- and long-term benefit.
5. Underspending is communications malpractice
After the election, in the wake of down-ballot losses by the Democrats, we saw a public post-mortem about digital strategy errors. Ocasio-Cortez chastised fellow Democrats for under-spending on Facebook, calling any budget of less than $200,000 spent in the final week of a congressional district campaign “political malpractice”. (The average US congressional district has 700,000 residents.) What is the right-sized budget for a high-stakes communications campaign to break through? It might be more than you think.
Lesson: Facebook may continue its current ban on political advertising, but the question of what digital budget is required to win a campaign remains. Strategists must be realistic about the resources required to win — and prioritize digital budgets over other uses of cash.
U.S. politics is a revealing testing ground for new digital communications strategy and tactics. No matter what your goal or audience, communicators can learn from the lessons of 2020 and adapt the winning campaign’s strategies to power your own success.