Who’s winning the digital race to the White House?

The results are in for Episerver’s study ranking the digital campaigns of the leading presidential candidates, and two people have a clear position at the top: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Trump, of course, is well known for his frequent and often controversial tweets, and Sanders’ website draws more daily visitors than any other candidate.

These results got me thinking about what else these two candidates have in common, and what their success can tell us about marketing and branding today.

An undeniable factor in the success of both candidates is that many people perceive them as being authentic. Though one of the candidates is a billionaire real estate developer, and the other a socialist U.S. senator from Vermont, both candidates appear to be unafraid to say what they really feel about things – even if it risks turning away certain voters.

At a recent gathering of South Carolina business leaders, for example, Trump bluntly declared, “I'm so tired of this politically correct crap.” Many voters and analysts perceive Trump’s unscripted, “tell it like it is” approach to be a strength, rather than a liability.

And in a U.S. political climate where the label “socialist” has long widely been perceived as a negative, Sanders claims it as his own. In an interview with The Nation published in July, Sanders said: “Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word.” 

Authenticity trumps best practice

With marketers and communicators, just as with politicians, there can be a tendency to choose the path of least risk. This might mean avoiding statements that seem too controversial, or it might mean just doing what has always worked before.

However, what Trump and Sanders are proving, or rather what their competitors are proving, is that the safe route of following best practices might not always be the most effective. Voters and consumers are becoming increasingly savvy: about marketing messages, about political spin, about recognizing the vacant eyes above the dazzling white smile.

For example, a common best practice on Twitter is to use images to attract attention and occupy more real estate. Clinton’s team is doing this for every tweet, whereas Trump never includes any images. Nevertheless, Trump has managed to get a higher amplification rate by not following best practice.

If you look at the 2008 presidential race, Obama’s campaign cracked the code for how to create highly converting websites, where people opt in their contact details. Best practice was established. If you look at hillaryclinton.com today, it is very similar to barackobama.com from 2008. But now this best practice is not enough.

To really move the needle today, candidates will have to go beyond established best practice and discover new ways of doing things. They have to experiment with new hypotheses that go beyond best practice and have the potential to discover new territory. Trump is already doing this in his own way with his “brutally honest” approach.

In the world of marketing, best practices are often not the pot of gold they claim to be. Here’s Episerver’s quick SlideShare on the subject: Why Best Practice is Killing Marketing

Time to start experimenting

Am I suggesting that you become exactly like Trump or Sanders? No. For good reason companies have to be careful about how their brands are presented, and most marketers don’t have billions of dollars to fall back on like The Donald, should their plans fail.

What I am suggesting though are two things: 

1. Try something different. You can start small, by experimenting with how you write, trying out new headlines, or not including every single marketing buzzword. Or try using an image that is truly unexpected and fun. 

You can also experiment with new channels that haven’t been established as mainstream yet. New channels always overperform initially, when users are novices and not enough advertisers have figured out how to use them. Instagram, for example, could be a tremendously effective tool, using Facebook’s ad engine, since people are not used to seeing ads there. Facebook’s organic reach may be down, but advertising is still fertile soil for savvy marketers.

Just look at how ad banners went from novelty to no man’s land.

2. Talk to people like they are people. When producing content for your website, or developing marketing material, try to tell people something real. This might mean telling people who your products are for, but even more importantly who they are NOT for. 

There is an underserved niche today in communication where the best way of showing that you are honest is to undersell. We are so used to being oversold, and told a product or service can do everything, that it is utterly refreshing and trust building to hear from someone who tells you what their products cannot do or what they are not for.

Velocity has produced a great SlideShare on this subject: The Power of Insane Honesty in Content Marketing

By being authentic with your customers, you build trust and loyalty. You help them see the smile in your eyes, not just on your face.