In January 2015, we predicted that responsive storytelling would be an important trend to watch. (Fortunately for our clients, we're better at forecasting marketing trends than we were at picking the Powerball numbers.) Now we notice that the presidential candidates are all using responsive storytelling with visual content in their political marketing campaigns.
What is responsive storytelling?
Creativity evangelist Denise Jacobs used the term in 2012 to describe telling a story across multiple platforms, particularly on mobile. Inspired Mag recently defined it as "a strategy that aims to capture attention and then guide it towards a customizable and interactive information flow that will convey the narrative in a highly unique way."
"In other words, don’t tell me your story; tell me the story that is relevant to me."
This can be done using new technologies like microsites, apps, interactive infographics, and highly shareable visual content on social media.
In their study on Narrative Visualization, "Telling Stories with Data," Stanford researchers Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer compared responsive storytelling to a martini glass, "following a tight narrative path early on (the stem of the glass) and then opening up later for free exploration (the body of the glass.)" But a bullhorn, or megaphone, is probably a better analogy in the political marketing realm.
If you picture a candidate's tweet as the mouthpiece, the link that it takes you to is the wide end. Sometimes, that link takes you to a letter from a supporter, a candidate's bullet-pointed plan, information about a debate topic, a candidate's official website, a news article about primary results or a post-debate recap of the candidates' performance.
But more often, links from candidates social feeds take you to a photo album, YouTube page, or Facebook video. Why? As communications professor Mitchell Stephens wrote in 1998, when he predicted The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word, "Images use our senses more effectively than do black lines of type, stacked on white papers."
In fact, the brain processes video 60,000 times faster than text, according to Psychology Today.
Watching a video is also easier than reading. "Humans are hardwired to avoid demanding cognitive strain, so this tendency toward 'laziness' will, more often than not, invite us to choose information that is easy to process over the form that makes us put out a lot of effort," Psychology Today said. "Watching a video … is passive. It's much less demanding and more of an automatic process, asking a lot less energy and effort on behalf of the person watching."
Think about it: Would you rather watch Donald Trump duke it out with Ted Cruz on stage during a debate, or would you prefer to pore over each candidate's political agenda before hitting the polls? That's what we thought.
And since the brain is busy processing data as we read, video engages the audience better than text because it enables us to feel.
"When we watch a video, we become immersed in it and create an empathetic connection with the screen," Psychology Today said, "so it's much easier for us to become emotionally attached to something we watch in a video than something we read in an article."
So that explains why Facebook users view more than 3 billion videos and share 2 billion photos every single day, according to Tech Crunch. And the fact that Facebook has 1.59 billion active users, Twitter has 320 million active users, Snapchat has more than 100 million daily users, and Periscope has more than 10 million total users explains why the 2016 presidential candidates had no choice but to flock to social media to tell their story if they want to be elected. As we stated last year, "People are used to having access to information when and where they want it." You have to go where your audience is.
Okay, but will social media actually help the candidates get elected?
Back in 2004, political candidates were still relying heavily on TV commercials that attacked competitors to sway voters, but the Republicans were ahead of the curve. Karl Rove and a political marketing consulting firm used a database called the Voter Vault to craft messages toward potential Republican supporters according to their hobbies, professional interests and even their favorite brands. The practice helped reelect George W. Bush, but a 2012 study revealed that the idea of such highly-tailored political ads actually repelled voters.
According to the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, "86 percent of Americans say they do not want 'political advertising tailored to [their] interests,'" and "64 percent of Americans say their likelihood of voting for a candidate they support would decrease if they learn a candidate's campaign organization buys information about their online activities and their neighbor's online activities—and then sends them different political messages it thinks will appeal to them."
Luckily for President Obama, he'd already learned the power of social media.
"It was that video's viral circulation, which caused it to be watched by millions of Americans only days after it was first posted, that gave Obama solid electoral credibility in Middle America. Suddenly he was like a pop star on MTV. The video wasn't even made by the Obama campaign team. It was produced, organically, by hip-hop star Will.i.am from the group Black Eyed Peas."
So this year, candidates are spending nearly $1 billion on digital media, and more than half of that will go toward social media platforms, according to Wired. In comparison, candidates only spent $22.25 million on digital media in 2008. That $1 billion is expected to increase to $3.3 billion for election year 2020.
Apparently, candidates' social media efforts are paying off. Last October, CBS News reported that the election generated more than 1 billion posts, likes, comments and shares on Facebook.
"More than 68 million people—more than one-third of 193 million Americans who use the service each month—contributed to the staggering volume of chatter," CBS said.
Today's political marketing relies on visual content and social media
Statistics have shown that visual content impacts marketing, which, of course, is what a presidential campaign boils down to. According to HubSpot, "Content with relevant images gets 94 percent more views than content without relevant images," and "51.9 percent of marketing professionals worldwide name video as the type of content with the best ROI." Considering these numbers, it's no surprise that presidential candidates are embracing Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, and Periscope to rally support.
Donald Trump announced his candidacy via Periscope, and Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie used Snapchat to announce theirs.
"At first glance, Snapchat may seem like an odd platform to promote political marketing content from campaigns," ABC News said. But much like social media users who upload hundreds of photos from their vacation, the app's story tool allows candidates to send supporters videos that make them feel like they're at the caucus or debate halfway across the country. "There is even a case to make that Snapchat viewers had better access to these types of moments than the people who were actually on the ground."
Jeb Bush, Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton all target voters with political marketing via Twitter and Facebook. But Clinton's campaign staff also employs Instagram, Pinterest and even Spotify, according to CIO magazine, because a Syracuse University professor suggested that these efforts help soften her image and make her more human and relatable.
Donald Trump, on the other hand … "I understand social media, maybe better than anybody, ever," The Washington Times quoted him as saying last November. "Somebody said I'm the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters."
Perhaps attempting to capitalize on President Obama's success with Facebook, Ben Carson's now-defunct campaign paid for more than 240 different sponsored posts last fall. According to NPR, nearly every single one of Carson's sponsored posts was targeted to a different subset of voters.
Bernie Sanders also took a page out of Obama's playbook by leveraging the power of video and celebrity endorsements to reach out to young, pop culture-savvy voters. Sanders regularly shared videos of stars such as Family Guy creator Seth Macfarlane and comedian Sarah Silverman addressing crowds at his rallies. The campaign produced a series of YouTube videos of the candidate being interview by Killer Mike in the rapper's Atlanta barber shop. You can even watch a YouTube video of the Vermont Senator and Vampire Weekend leading supporters in a singalong of This Land Is Your Land at a campaign stop in Iowa.
While social media can be a powerful tool for reaching Millennial voters, the Clinton campaign learned that tone is extremely important to that particular audience. In August 2015, a tweet from her campaign challenged Millennials to describe how student debt makes them feel, "in 3 emojis or less." The tweet sparked a minor backlash, with many users calling it a condescending and glib way to address an issue that this constituency takes very seriously.
— Danielle Kurtzleben (@titonka) August 12, 2015
Clinton's campaign took the negative response in stride and leveraged the media attention to promote her plan for student debt reform.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) August 12, 2015
Going rogue: how voters are getting into the race with their own political marketing content
The voice of individual voters has never been more amplified than it is in this election, thanks to social media. Today, it's not just the actual campaigns that are producing visual content to win over voters. The legacy of "Yes We Can," (a fan-created viral hit) can be seen today on Facebook and Twitter, where anonymously created political memes are now more popular than ever. Memes are like the political cartoons of yesteryear, but their messages are amplified to an audience that's exponentially larger and more fragmented. According to the Boston Globe, "Memes have a way of condensing the fog of the campaign season into highly acidic drops of commentary. Sometimes these are gross simplifications, but other times they are perfectly crystallized metaphors."
Whole online communities are sprouting up around the popularity of political memes, as pages like Facebook's "Bernie Sanders' Dank Meme Stash," have earned hundreds of thousands of members in just a couple months. Unofficial groups like this one can flood their members' timelines with a never-ending stream of talking-point humor and pro-candidate propaganda, but they are, by definition, impossible for campaigns to control. As Michael Andor Brodeur wrote in the Boston Globe, "once the Internet at large got its mitts on “Bernie or Hillary?” the meme began to reveal less about the candidates, and more about voters."
You win the internet
In a climate where any individual can join the political conversation and have her voice heard by thousands—or even millions of voters, it's now more important than ever for presidential hopefuls to get their stories straight on social media. Whoever can rise to this challenge won't just "Win the Internet," but get to sit in the Oval Office.
Need visual content that tells your brand's story?