3 Reasons Why Trump Needs to Start an Advertising Blitz

September 5, 2016, 9:30 PM UTC
Photograph by Getty Images

Every four years, a new American presidential campaign gives a fresh boost to social media. This year the winner is Twitter. Donald Trump has racked up 11.3 million Twitter followers (and counting) compared with 8.5 million for Hillary Clinton. But Trump has 33,100 tweets to his credit to Clinton’s 7,772, and he widens his lead on retweets. Trump has been tweeting more energetically, but Clinton is way more efficient in number of tweeters per tweet.

As she did in 2008, Clinton is relying more heavily on traditional media with over $100 million spent so far on largely negative television advertisements in battleground or swing states. These ads are designed to raise doubts about and paint a picture of Trump before he has enough money to hit the airwaves in earnest. Complementing this air war is Clinton’s well-organized ground game with Democratic Party members planning how to get out the vote on Election Day in every precinct.

Paid television advertising, the air war, can give a candidate broad coverage and control of the message but is expensive. Similarly, the ground war requires an expensive investment in personnel. Social media is free and instantaneous but coverage can be limited and the candidate has little control. To succeed in 2016, a candidate has to play a strong game on all three fronts.

Thus far, Trump has spent next to nothing on television advertising. His national organization is leaner or understaffed, depending on how you look at it. His local organization is spotty, thanks to continuing internecine rivalries within the Republican Party.

Trump’s comparative advantage is in social media. He used controversial tweets, sometimes incorporating personal attacks, to dominate the news cycle during the Republican primaries and see off 16 rivals, including Jeb Bush, who spent $100 million on traditional marketing before dropping out.

Can the same strategy succeed in the general election campaign? Probably not, for three reasons:

  1. Trump needs around 60 million votes to win, six times more than his Twitter following. Many voters aren’t on Twitter. Some don’t know what Twitter is. In 2015, the average American spent more than one-third of her media interaction time online and around one-third watching television, 10 percent reading magazines and newspapers, and 10 percent listening to the radio. In other words, many voters still spend much of their time interacting with traditional media.
  2. Voters who may have enjoyed being entertained and provoked during the primary by Trump’s tweets are likely to become more serious as they approach the general election. Given the tough challenges facing the nation, a few tweets and platitudes are unlikely to suffice. Many voters are now looking not just for problem-solving skills but for specific policy solutions that hold up under scrutiny.
  3. Trump is under-leveraging Twitter. Though he feeds his followers a continuing diet of controversial tweets that project his tell-it-like-it-is brand personality, Trump does not use Twitter to listen and seek feedback, generate leads and research the messages he should use in the traditional air and ground wars. Unlike Clinton, Trump seems to reject using social media – including Twitter and Facebook – to target messages at specific voters based on data analytics. Many commercial marketers, Coca-Cola for example (with more than 99 million Facebook likes), are leveraging social media much more effectively than Trump to better understand their customers.

At the same time, Trump has advantages. His antics have generated over $2 billion worth of earned (i.e free) media coverage; name recognition is not an issue. He draws much larger and more enthusiastic crowds than Clinton, which may impress television viewing audiences. He is increasingly combining scripted policy statements with the “stream of consciousness” speeches that have got him into trouble but project an authenticity welcomed by many voters. He is keeping his marketing powder dry until after Labor Day, gambling that Clinton’s August advertising blitz will not yet have sealed his fate.

Trump is clearly more comfortable than Clinton with the social media so widely used by young millennials. Clinton’s “wipe the server with a cloth” comment revealed a quaint ignorance of technology and her podcasts have been critiqued by the Financial Times as “well-executed PR fluff.”

For all the chatter about Trump’s Twitter prowess, a quick review of the raw data reveals who really has the power in America. Beyoncé has 14.6 million Twitter followers (and, by the way, 64.6 million Facebook likes compared to Trump’s 10.5 million), 35 percent more than Trump. Beyoncé has achieved this following with a mere 9 tweets. Sometimes, you don’t have to talk all the time to be heard.

Professor John Quelch is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School where he teaches Strategic Marketing Management in the Advanced Management Program.

Professor Thales Teixeira teaches Digital Marketing and Ecommerce courses at HBS and maintains the site Economics of Attention.

This article was originally published on Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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