Hey, 2020 Candidates: This Is Why You Should Stop Advertising

The primary elections are heating up and bringing with them a flood of new and diverse presidential candidates. While political pundits have waxed extensively about the “blue wave” that swept through the nation last fall, they don’t talk a lot about the estimated $4.7 billion that political advertisers spent in hopes of swaying voters in tight races.

It’s a shame that all that time and effort could have been better spent on other endeavors – particularly given how Americans make their voting decisions.

Differentiated candidates are more likely to win their races, but it sometimes feels like voters are left with a choice between pancakes and flapjacks.

In researching for my latest book, Talk Triggers, I spoke at length to more than 1,000 consumers about word of mouth and its applications in various areas. I compiled some of that information into a report – ” Chatter Matters ” – that details how, when and why people are inspired to generate chatter via word of mouth. That research revealed that political advertising ranks a paltry seventh on the list of the most influential sources of information for American voters. For instance, 77 percent of voters age 60 and older ranked news coverage in their top three, while only 28 percent of millennials did. Instead, millennials largely rely on personal experience or recommendations from friends and family.

How people consume information determines how they discuss that information with their friends. Word-of-mouth influence is consistently relevant, faster than an ad campaign or news segment and relatively unbiased. In an environment where trust is at a premium, this information carries significant implications for anyone who wants to sway voters.

Generating Buzz on the Campaign Trail

Despite the power of personal recommendations, relatively few candidates have concrete word-of-mouth strategies. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Beto O’Rourke in Texas showed that it’s possible to generate buzz without massive advertising spend – though only Ocasio-Cortez emerged victorious.

Perhaps the best example of word-of-mouth tactics on the campaign trail comes courtesy of President Donald Trump, whose iconic “Make America Great Again” baseball caps were ubiquitous. The hats allowed voters to feel like they were a part of the campaign’s narrative and expressed that they were fully in the Republican’s corner.

As the 2020 candidates begin to distinguish their ideas and establish their voices, a few moments could turn into conversation starters and symbols of the power of word of mouth.

Sen. Kamala Harris, for example, recently made news when touring small businesses on the campaign trail and trying on a colorful sequined jacket. Critics raised objections about reporters shopping with her and tweeting about the experience, but they soon faced a backlash when others argued that male candidates have historically done a number of nonpolitical leisure activities while surrounded by reporters on the campaign trail. The potential exists for this moment to become a buzzworthy symbol of the campaign.

Another example is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has used the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted” as part of her campaign after Sen. Mitch McConnell used it to interrupt and override her during the nomination of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Warren began using the phrase as a battle cry of sorts, and it quickly became a social media and pop culture phenomenon, a well-known conversation piece associated with the candidate.

When you get down to it, we make voting decisions much like we make purchasing decisions. Consumers might consider several similar products, but the brand that makes a unique sales pitch wins out. When every other option feels vanilla, we clamor for a taste of strawberry.

Politics is similar: Differentiated candidates are more likely to win their races, but it sometimes feels like voters are left with a choice between pancakes and flapjacks. Candidates who create talk triggers – a unique element or differentiator that compels customers to share their experiences with others – on the campaign trail are likelier to win word-of-mouth wars. And elections. These talk triggers are far more influential than traditional advertising, with researchers in California reporting that ads, phone banks and door-to-door campaigns do not affect election outcomes.

Building the Perfect Political Talk Trigger

The only problem with word of mouth is that it tends to feel circumstantial and uncertain. We assume audiences will talk about our brands (or campaigns) simply because we are competent at our jobs, but nobody is compelled to share a tale of met expectations. Instead, we must disrupt expectations in such a way that induces audiences to share their stories.

While it might seem presumptuous to distill word of mouth to a science, here’s my framework for the perfect political talk trigger. It must:

  1. Be remarkable. Quite literally, people should not be able to keep themselves from talking about a candidate. A talk trigger requires finding a way to be uniquely different from the competition. Note that not everyone is guaranteed to appreciate a differentiator. For example, though some people are quite fond of handlebar mustaches, that doesn’t mean everyone shares that adoration. But even if they’re slightly polarizing, remarkable candidates, like handlebar mustaches, stand out.
  2. Be relevant. A talk trigger needs to work in tandem with large-scale objectives and positioning. It should make sense within the context of who someone is, what that person stands for and what he or she does.
  3. Be reasonable. People should inherently believe that a candidate’s talk trigger is true. A politician might attract attention by claiming to communicate with animals, but most people will immediately doubt that he or she is honest. Find something that wows people while inspiring confidence, as was the case with the MAGA hats.
  4. Be repeatable. A successful talk trigger cannot be a one-time affair; every single person should be able to experience a candidate’s differentiator. This attainable quality ensures anyone can become a major character in your ongoing campaign.

In voting and commerce, it’s easy to take word of mouth for granted and assume advertising works because it costs money. Both perceptions are flawed. Political influencers today and in the future would be wise to focus less on ad spend and more on talk triggers to spread their stories. The results will speak for themselves.

Jay Baer, founder of Convince & Convert, is a business strategist and author of five books.


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