What Companies, Candidates and Yes — Even Government Institutions — Can Learn From 2016

I hate the word audience. People are no longer passive consumers of media content. They are active participants who create content, provide commentary and amplify information. In 2016, the best campaigns didn’t just serve up content, they genuinely engaged their constituencies and built the infrastructure to do so at scale.

Whenever a new form of media emerges, the people who thrive at it are those who leverage what makes that new form of media unique from its predecessors. Orson Wells and FDR were among the first to prioritize not just what they were saying, but the emotional impact of how they sounded on the radio. The first television programs were little more than radio shows with a camera thrown into the corner; until JFK and innovators like Don Hewitt prioritized how things looked visually, recognizing the emotional power of the moving image. The first generation of digital content too often shifts broadcast content onto new platforms; the most effective organizations are prioritizing what makes online platforms unique — their interactivity, the ability to genuinely engage users wherever they are.

From fundamental things like validating involvement with RTs and Likes, to larger decisions like investing significant resources into building and sustaining engaged online communities, the RNC and the Trump campaign recognized this opportunity.

They were not alone. For the past two election cycles, the NRSC has leaned heavily into digital platforms — prioritized by their leadership and building out teams to ensure Senate Republican races are at the forefront of the innovation curve. Exceptional campaigns like those run by Cory Gardner (’14) and Rob Portman (’16) demonstrated how expansive the political impact of digital platforms can be.

In short, if you’re still trying to simply reach audiences, you’re already one step behind those who not only find people where they are — on the platforms they use every day — but who also prioritize meaningful online engagement.

Investments in Building Communities

Communities don’t self-actualize. In the face of considerable ridicule by pundits, the Trump campaign, the RNC and the NRSC all shifted significant resources into digital infrastructure. Like early adopters in the private sector, they were rewarded for nimbly adapting to shifting trends in how the public experiences content, shares information and builds community.

The RNC realized that, due to a heavily divided primary field, any eventual nominee would need to quickly build out the digital infrastructure required to win the general election. Ensuring that the committee was prepared for that moment became a top priority of Chairman Reince Priebus. When the time to be tested arrived, the RNC was well-prepared with the significant data assets, technical infrastructure and staff resources required.

There is a mythology that online fundraising just happens — it doesn’t. Any serious online fundraising program requires meaningful upfront investments: list building, community development, etc. For example, from a fundraising perspective, the RNC made significant investments in 2015 to build a new, larger email list. The Trump campaign and the RNC made these investments and were rewarded with an incredible return. By conservative estimates, the RNC raised over $250 million in a few short months online — that’s over $1.6 million per day, from grassroots donors across the country.

While pundits chuckled over how much the campaign spent on hats, most ignored the fact that the campaign made money on every hat sold — the amount spent on hats was a reflection of just how successful the campaign’s online fundraising program had become.

During the campaign, when I first heard the scale of the Trump campaign’s social media optimization, I honestly didn’t believe it — then I saw the dashboard and data first-hand. Under a program put together by the RNC’s steely-eyed optimization maven Gary Coby and the Trump campaign’s Digital Director Brad Parscale, they were testing between 40,000 to 60,000 different Facebook ad variations every day for online fundraising. This number doesn’t include the GOTV or persuasion ad variations also being tested at scale, every day. I don’t care how witty your press secretary might be, you’re not going to defeat that level of optimization. This is the difference between limiting Facebook to a communications role and leveraging the full potential of the platform to engage people, raise resources and achieve a result.

Four Screens To Victory

All screens that the public uses to engage with content and learn information are critically important — television, desktop monitors, tablets and smartphones. Here are two quick examples of how a broad-based embrace of all four screens impacted the 2016 election.

For months, largely without notice, the RNC and the Trump campaign were dominating YouTube views in swing states — a major strategic advantage. There is a reason that ESPN is losing subscribers, it isn’t because people are losing interest in sports — they are losing interest with traditional ways to consume television content. In 2012, one-third of likely voters in Ohio didn’t watch commercials on live TV — that number has only grown exponentially. Whose commercial were they watching in states like Wisconsin?

Down ballot, the NRSC got serious about Snapchat — while most treated the platform as a shiny object and the NRSC’s political opponents even went so far as to mock them for using it, Ward Baker and Tim Cameron ran scientifically-valid experiments to determine the actual net impact of Snapchat advertising among the platform’s users. The results were strikingly consistent: major shifts in issue recall among Snapchat users — a double-digit lift in net favorability rating and ballot preferences. Among the hardest, if not impossible, constituencies to reach with traditional media, Snapchat not only reached them, but did so effectively.

In the weeks ahead, there will be many more examples — for those paying attention, they will be from both sides of the aisle — of innovative things that worked in the 2016 cycle. Of course, there will be some shiny objects, but those who dismiss digital’s rising importance as a shiny object are on the wrong side of history. It is clear that digital platforms will become increasingly central to how effective organizations achieve their objectives.

Modernizing Government

So, where does this all lead?

Our governing institutions must modernize how they develop and enact public policy. In response to the rise of television, our governing institutions did more than just place cameras in the corner of a room — the government’s daily routines evolved to prioritize television.

This wasn’t an exercise in vanity — to govern well it was essential to use television well. It is the reason why committee hearing rooms are effectively television studios in everything but name — stage lighting, control booths, camera locations, etc. The rise in the public’s frustration with government has many causes, but I would suggest that a major factor is the dissonance between government and the people. The operating routines of our governing institutions are increasingly out-of-sync with how the American public shares information and makes decisions.

In the words of Clay Shirky, there is a great cognitive surplus in the country today; millions of Americans who want to help our country succeed, with the ideas, creativity and expertise to make a difference. Digital platforms make it possible for our country’s leaders to meaningfully and substantively engage with the American public on an ongoing basis; it not only can happen, it must happen. It is increasingly essential to building and sustaining support for public policy.

Digital platforms are incredible marketing platforms, but that isn’t the full extent of their potential; they need to become a central part of how public policy is developed, enacted and implemented.