Why Big Content Trumped Big Data In The 2016 Election

This article was first published on The Huffington Post.

A friend of mine—a marketing strategist in the big blue state of California—tells me he got this email alert from MoveOn just days before the election:

“Biting nails, pulling out hair, obsessively refreshing FiveThirtyEight—these are just a few of the ways you could pass the time between now and November 8. And none of them will actually get someone out to vote or help win the election.”

It was a prescient piece of political messaging. FiveThirtyEight is one of several wildly popular sites that aggregated and analyzed voting polls throughout the election cycle. My California friend admitted he was one of many FiveThirtyEight users (addicts) who found himself monitoring the predictions at least a dozen times a day.

The folks at MoveOn were onto something. Big data—which was one of the big stories in the last presidential election cycle—was proving to be a distraction. There was something far more important emerging: big content, which the Trump campaign had been steadily leveraging since the start of the campaign.

The 2016 election is a story about story, and there are several things that all marketing professionals can learn from it.

“Paid” versus “earned”

At a lecture last week at SF State, another colleague of mine—who has been advancing the idea of “big content”—observed that there were at least five things that were different about this election. The first he summarized as follows, under the category of content: “It used to be about paid and earned media. This election was more about earned and owned media.”

What does this mean? If you are not a marketer, paid media means advertising; you pay for the attention. Earned media means PR; you earn the attention by getting reporters, broadcasters, and others to focus on you. I’ll look at “owned media” in a moment, but here’s a quick look at what happened with “paid” and “earned” this election.

First, to the great surprise of many people in the marketing world, the total expenditures for advertising actually dropped this presidential election cycle. An article in USA Today just before the election cited the Center for Responsive Politics which predicted that “the final price tag of the 2016 White House campaign will hit about $2.65 billion, a dip from the $2.76 billion that flowed into the 2012 contest, when adjusted for inflation.”

For many critics of the US election process, this might sound encouraging. But here’s the flip side of the story: This year, the victor of the presidential election received an unprecedented amount of earned media: $5 billion according to one estimate.

So, it would be wrong to conclude that the “costs” of running a campaign have decreased. It would be more precise to say that the skills required to erase those costs — the art and science of storytelling — are becoming more and more paramount.

Power of “Owned”

But we’re not done yet with this analysis. There’s still the phenomenon of “owned media.” By that we mean the media that a candidate can control because, in fact, she owns it. It’s a relatively new term of art in the marketing world and it can mean many things. It can mean email lists, because you own the addresses and therefore can own the content you use to directly engage your stakeholders. It can also mean social media — though some people like to label this “shared content” — because you can use your social media accounts to say what you want, when you want (three O’clock in the morning, if you are so inclined).

But if that’s all that happened during this election, we really wouldn’t have that much to talk about. What made owned content so interesting during this election was that the Trump organization in fact operated like a media company. Before Trump won, there was lots of speculation as to how Trump would launch his own media company after the election, assuming he lost. But, like the FiveThirtyEight refresh, that story turned out to be a distraction. Not only did Trump use his Twitter handle, mostly unfettered, to continuously connect with his base, he hired Steve Bannon, the editor of Breitbart News, the most influential media company with one of his target audiences, to help augment, target, and tell the story.

Power of Story

And in the end, it is story, not data, that helps win the day, regardless of the veracity of the story. In the wrong hands, big content can easily become the “big lie”. That is all the more reason to democratize the rules and tools of storytelling. In the meantime, many media watchers already are warning about another danger: the fetishization of big data. As Howard Fineman, editorial director for The Huffington Post, said last week, “big data is big data, but people are individuals and they make individual choices.”

What this election showed once again (it happened in 2008 and 2012) is that connecting with people through both logic and emotion—and doing that at scale—is the smartest thing you can do as a marketer. (Make no mistake: Mr. Trump is a marketer, and he is one of the best.) And if I had to guess how storytelling might evolve in the near future, I’d say that it would be the use of storytelling technologies that bring you even closer to the people you are trying to engage.

This will probably happen before the next election. But here’s where I’m putting my money: It will probably influence the outcome of the next election. For few things endure as much as the power of story, humanity’s greatest social tool. And it’s a tool that keeps evolving.

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