As the primaries heat up, politicians are leveraging digital marketing and social media to capture the hearts (and votes) of U.S. voters.

Having a strong digital presence is now table stakes for political candidates. Whether 50 years ago or today, there are 3 things successful political campaigns have been able to learn from marketers: be targeted, be efficient, and be clear with your message across all channels or be lost in the cacophony of the elections. So, let’s take a look at how political candidates, over time, have adapted to incorporate digital marketing into their campaigns to effectively communicate their message.

When Digital Marketing Meets Politics

What does this look like in practice? Let’s answer that question by taking a look at how political candidates have structured and used their websites and how that has evolved to mirror marketing best practices. Then, we’ll look at how candidates have adapted their strategies to take their message to social media platforms.

The Website

In 1996, just five years after the first website was built, Bill Clinton and Al Gore took advantage of the web to promote their campaign. These running-mates launched their own site, which is still up today, stating their tagline and offering additional resources. At the time, presidential campaigns had little insight into who would come to their website. With no data to back up their actions and no measures to test by, their website laid out everything—from debate information to biographies to downloadable bumper stickers—in hard-to-navigate columns.

Clinton Gore

By the 2000 and 2004 elections, websites were much more robust with new modules, calendars, newsletters, and lots of content. While these new capabilities were great and candidates seemed to embrace them, the sites suffered from looking cluttered and lacked a clear call-to-action. In the two examples below from the Bush/Cheney website in 2000 and then again in 2004, you can see the evolution of call-to-action and site organization.

A marked departure from the clutter of the earlier websites, Barack Obama’s 2007 website harnessed the power of a clear message and call-to-action. Taking a page from the marketing playbook, instead of overwhelming his readers with more information, he created a clear message and call-to-action (join the team), with a more organized display for additional information. Overall, you can see a drastic shift in the site design to be less cluttered and provide clear visuals.


In fact, Obama’s website was launched by Chris Hughes, one of the co-founders of Facebook, who created it with the intention of being a networking site where volunteers could create groups, plan events, raise funds, and connect with each other. Look how far it’s come today:


Digital Marketing is a Cornerstone for the Modern Campaign

Not only did website capabilities advance as time progressed, but so did the different web properties to help candidates reach a broader audience—namely social media. The 2008 campaign year was an unprecedented turning point in which candidates embraced social media. This was especially true of the Obama campaign, which harnessed the power of social media and digital marketing to connect with his supporters on a new level. As Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post said, “Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee.” Obama also leveraged YouTube like never before. The campaign’s official channel was collectively watched for 14.5 million hours, as reported by political consultant Joe Trippi. And from Obama’s success, a lesson emerged that political candidates from any party, running for any office (from local mayor all the way to president), will not soon forget—candidates need to be everywhere their audiences are if they want their message to reach beyond their base of voters.

As for the current presidential candidates, almost all of the candidate sites today echo a similar format: clear message, clear call-to-action, neat navigation, and a giant email signup (plus links to social media sites).

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The emphasis on digital spending, social media, and other online paid ads is only going to increase as the election gets closer. Already, some candidates are changing their strategy to focus their spending specifically on digital marketing channels. Consider how presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has mixed traditional avenue with digital. She spent early on and often on traditional methods—$12 million on television, $6 million on direct mail, and set aside about $6 million for digital advertising. She has leveraged the most diverse and unique channels to interact with her followers: Instagram, Pinterest, Periscope, Snapchat, even a Spotify list with Clinton’s curated music including Katy Perry and JLo. Does listening to Clinton’s playlist sway more people to vote for her? I don’t think so, but it’s just one piece of the cross-channel puzzle. In fact, on she has 14 or so webtrackers, including Optimizely, Facebook Custom Audiences, and Google Adwords.

In contrast, Donald Trump has only 3 (Facebook Custom Audience, Google Analytics and Google Dynamic Remarketing). However, Trump hasn’t turned his back on digital marketing and social media. His website, like the other candidates, is simple above the fold and then below it invites visitors to sign up for SMS alerts, watch his YouTube videos, and participate with the campaign on social media.

Trump Website: Above the fold

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Trump Website: Below the fold

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Among his Republican candidate primary competition, Trump seems to be using social media most effectively, although he is arguably one of the loudest (albeit THE most controversial) social media contributors. Which makes sense: small statements can travel far at the speed of light with social media.

Stats released by Twitter after a GOP debate

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Take a look at another candidate, Bernie Sanders. He has spent more money than any other politician before on digital marketing: a whopping $10 million, while he has spent minimal funds on traditional avenues such as television and direct mail (Bush spent $35 million on television ads alone). Digital marketing has been at the heart of his marketing strategy, and that appears to have started to pay off with the target demographic of the millennial generation. After the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus, some 84% of voters ages 18-29 voted for Sanders.

While millennials are an incredibly loyal generation, they also see through political pomp and want nothing to do with political campaigns from the past. Being able to interact with candidates on their own terms, on their own channels, is incredibly important to them. It won’t be surprising to see the rest of the presidential candidates start to pay more attention to digital marketing channels as the need to appeal to different, segmented groups grows more pressing. One thing’s for sure, while smart political campaigns are certainly applying marketing best practices—targeted and clear messages—undoubtedly, they could get even more personal and create more tailored message to followers that care about certain issues more than others.

Do you think having more curated and personalized content from your representatives would be helpful? Let me know in the comments section below.