A Digital Lens on the U.S. Election

One day after the U.S. election and the dissection of the reasons for the outcome is well underway.

Richard Edelman, in a thoughtful town hall meeting with our global team today – and now captured on his blog – laid out a communications-focused lens on what happened, as well as some well-reasoned ideas on what businesses should look to do in the wake of the results.

“Twitter Triumphs over The New York Times”

One piece of Richard’s analysis got me thinking: his statement that “Twitter Triumphs over The New York Times.” In essence, Richard argues that while Hillary Clinton took a top-down, hierarchical approach to communication (via the mainstream media), Trump’s use of social media enabled him to go direct to his base and to communicate without the filter of the media. Richard correctly argues that companies can learn from this and, by adopting similar approaches, can derive similar benefits from reaching their stakeholders directly through digital channels.

This got me thinking on some other lessons and reminders we can take from this election. Here are a few thoughts from my perspective.

1. Echo Chambers Prevail

There is plenty of discussion on this topic right now. If you’re not familiar with the phenomenon, the top social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – all allow users to ‘follow’ other people whose content then provides the basis for what they see when they log in to those services. Given that most people tend to connect with people and organizations that share their views and values, it leads to people largely being surrounded with people who share their perspectives on things.

This was clearly illustrated by the WSJ’s Blue Feed, Red Feed visualization that showed what a Liberal supporter might see on Facebook, versus what a Conservative supporter might see. If you haven’t already, you should check it out.

This self-curation creates self-reinforcing echo chambers and narrows the perspectives to which we’re exposed online in a way that wasn’t present in the pre-Internet era. It’s why I continue to make a point of staying connected with people who I know don’t share my views on things, and why (until Google shut it down) Google Reader provided me with a regular dose of new perspectives – what Chris Brogan once termed the “Serendipity Effect”.

Implications for business: Get outside of your own bubble. If your social media team is just reporting on what people are saying to you online, request that they also help you understand what people are saying about you. You may find that there is a significant difference.

2. Corporate Social Media ≠ Personal Social Media

Those of us working in the digital space have witnessed the shift by social networks over the last few years. Social media has gone from focusing on earned conversation, to paid reach and a narrowing gap between social media marketing and traditional advertising – “less social, more media” as I’ve written previously. Community management has become increasingly commoditized in a number of sectors as marketers – who generally control the budgets – pushed social media activities higher in the funnel (whereas most community management tends to happen in the post-purchase phase).

Thus, with the exception of companies that recognize the power of social media for issues/crisis management or customer service, social media has become increasingly one-way in recent years.

Meanwhile, individual people continue to use social media as they did previously – sharing and talking about things that interest them… and, despite the relentless media attention placed on Donald Trump’s Twitter handle, there was a startling lack of attention paid to what the general population was expressing online.

This week was a useful reminder that the reality within the marketing industry does not mirror the reality of the average person.

Implications for business: Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the shift towards one-way communication in social channels means that people aren’t talking to each other – or talking back. Sentiment and conversation trends matter. Pay attention.

3. Analytics Drives News

In recent months I’ve had a number of conversations with colleagues regarding the growing importance of analytics and measurement in our industry. This week’s result reminded me that marketers aren’t the only ones using analytics to drive our programming.

Traditional media has always been driven to some extent by the news that people react to. Digital media, however, has enabled them to take that to a new level. In a world in which news is increasingly consumed online, stories are given prominence based on their click-through rates and stories are increasingly assigned based on how similar stories have performed in the past. We’ve seen it time and time again in our work, and given the financial state of the industry it’s not likely to be a trend that changes any time soon.

So, when people bemoan the mainstream media missing the mark in their coverage of the mood of the nation, or the volume of coverage dedicated to one candidate over another, consider: those stories were running because those were the stories that people were asking for – perhaps not explicitly, but implicitly through their actions.

Implications for business: Pay attention to the content you produce that performs well, and learn from it. Meanwhile, pay attention to the mainstream media stories about your organization that perform well (most news sites show a leaderboard of their top performing stories) and learn from them – they may foretell a long-standing storyline (positive or negative), or give you an insight that helps you land that key story down the road.

An Opportunity to Learn

The results of this election were surprising to many people on both sides of the political aisle. Regardless of your perspective, there are lessons we can learn on any number of fronts. I’ll leave it to others to postulate on the very real and important societal challenges that have been revealed in recent months. However, there are also some useful reminders here that the technology that has changed so much of how we communicate still continues to present its own challenges.

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.