WASHINGTON – When it comes to connecting with millennial voters, “the most brilliant of all the candidates” in use of social media isn’t even on the ballot Tuesday. Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 set the bar for excellence, says Emerson College professor David Gerzof Richard, founder of a digital marketing firm.
President Obama was funny, social media-savvy, and effortlessly cool in his campaigns. His tactics—which included making videos that went viral, getting hashtags to trend, and collecting thousands of influential Twitter users to be his “social media surrogates”—won him 66 percent of the Millennial vote in 2008, and 60 percent in 2012.
“It’s funny because there were so many phenomenal social media activities coming out of the Obama campaign,” said Richard, whose firm is called BIGfish PR. “You’d think that candidates would look at what worked and would build off of that.”
But they have not. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump have succeeded at marketing to Millennials, experts say, at least not anywhere close to what Obama achieved. Clinton tries too hard to pander to young voters and often misses the mark, while Trump does not try at all.
How important are millennials in this election?
A Pew Research Center report in August reported that Millennials and Gen-X’ers (those born between 1965 and 1984) now make up the majority of eligible voters, at 56 percent compared to the 44 percent of Boomers and older adults.
And 87 percent of millennials are likely to vote, according to a survey of 782 millennials at the end of October shared by Ypulse, a millennial marketing research firm.
In 2008 and 2012, those voters were crucial to the Obama coalition. Subtract all the under-30 voters in both years, and America would have ended up with a John McCain or Mitt Romney presidency instead, reported a Tufts University study.
So what is the best way to market to Millennials as a presidential candidate?
The strategy is three-fold, said Puneet Manchanda, a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan: Candidates must build their platform on issues millennials care about, present the information authentically and transparently, and broadcast these messages on social media.
“Being inauthentic is probably the biggest crime you can have now in celebrity driven politics,” said Ryan J. Davis, a digital strategist who worked for Howard Dean’s internet-heavy – but unsuccessful — 2004 presidential campaign.
Chase Campbell, vice President of client strategy at Harris Media, an online communications firm that oversaw Rand Paul’s digital strategy and was hired briefly by Trump, said millennials are moving away from Facebook and toward platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest. This requires campaigns to tailor their content to the platform—for example, getting users to engage with a filter on Snapchat—instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach.
And how are the two presidential candidates faring?
The October survey from Ypulse showed 56 percent of 679 millennials surveyed support Clinton, while 14 support Trump, leaving 30 percent either unsure or voting for third-party candidates so close to Election Day.
This lead could be explained by Clinton’s platform, which some experts said taps into issues Millennials care about. For example, she has introduced a plan to tackle student loan debts and offer need-based free college tuition at state-supported schools.
But others are less convinced.
“The problem is, (Clinton’s) message has become ‘Don’t vote for Trump,’” Campbell said. “She’s not really talking about any of her plans.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s core messages and values are not attractive enough to engage most millennial voters, Davis said.
Manchanda added that both candidates have neglected issues and instead resorted to appealing to the “lowest common denominator” of “personality issues” and “trust issues.”
As for styles and social media usage, the two candidates are almost polar opposites.
Clinton has tried appealing explicitly to Millennials, doing everything from dabbing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to asking users to tweet their feelings on student loan debt in three emojis or less. As late as Nov. 4, an ad ran featuring Lena Dunham rapping ironically and stripping down to a “sensual pantsuit.”
These efforts have been mocked endlessly in the media as cringeworthy and trying too hard, but Ryan Davis says they make up only a small fraction of her efforts, and most of her marketing—especially her video content—has been authentic.
“The bulk of the messaging has not been witty internet stuff,” the digital strategist said. “…The major messaging coming out of the campaign has been telling real stories about supporters supporting the Secretary.”
Other experts agreed withcritics that some of Clinton’s efforts come off as inauthentic or out of touch.
“Millennials, and I’m speaking as a millennial, we have a BS meter,” Campbell said. “…I think her tone (should be) less of trying to be hip with the times.”
Campbell cited Clinton’s appearance on satirical Funny or Dieshow Between Two Ferns as an example. Barack Obama’s appearance on the show was warmly received, but Campbell said Clinton’s “completely backfired.”
“Idealistically, Zach Galifinakis was going to prop her up,” he said. “I think he made her look a little more out of touch than he did a typical guest. I think that sarcasm or wittiness probably just isn’t very natural for her. It’s not like Obama sitting up there.”
Obama knew how to go viral. David Gerzof Richard, the professor from Boston’s Emerson College, had studied his campaign closely in 2012, analyzing his and Mitt Romney’s Twitter handles.
Whereas Romney only followed a couple hundred conservative politicians and pundits, Obama followed back several thousands of influential Twitter users—including Richard. In the week leading up to the election, he received direct messages every day from Obama on talking points and suggesting what to Tweet. The hashtags Obama suggested would then trend, thanks to his social media army.
(Richard was not part of Obama’s campaign.)
But “social media virality is really hard to replicate and can’t be forced,” Richard said. “Like that ‘Trumped up trickle down’ [Clinton quote]? It feels very forced. That tends not to go viral….That is such a carryover from old campaign strategies.”
By comparison, Richard said, Trump has embraced Twitter, “tapping in the news, being controversial,” and getting the media to make his snippets and soundbites go viral for him.
Except for one Millennial-targeting ad featuring three of his children that was criticized on Twitter, Trump has eschewed pandering to Millennials, opting instead for a no-filter social media strategy.
But the authenticity is not enough to counteract his Millennial-repelling message.
“Bernie Sanders was also quite unfiltered,” Manchanda said. “… But then he was speaking to the issues that [Millennials] care about. It was authentic and it mattered. With Trump, you can say it’s authentic but it doesn’t matter to the things they care about.”
So why aren’t the candidates better at marketing to Millennials?
“Trump probably feels like he doesn’t need to, because he has his own built-in audience,” Richard said. “Clinton on the other hand…she’s an older candidate who’s done things an older, different way.”
Manchanda’s explanation is simpler. He suspects both candidates simply do not find Millennials important enough to prioritize their marketing.
“It’s the cold calculus of which demographic will help you win the election,” he said.