WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) — The moment Hillary Clinton utters a word about Donald Trump’s thin skin and erratic temperament, the billionaire shoots off a tweet within seconds.
Thus is 2016.
It’s a new era of online tit-for-tat politicking born of the public’s demand for accessibility and the ease of blasting out messages to uber-connected supporters in one simple post.
In many ways, Trump is both a product and promulgator of this one-and-done communication method.
The presumptive Republican nominee doesn’t run his tweets through layers of messaging experts. He dictates them to a staffer standing nearby, or presumably types them out himself when they come flying through the Twittersphere during the day’s wee hours.
Clinton is slower to publicly air gripes but does post personal sentiments about certain topics. On top of that, the presumptive Democratic nominee has an entire staff dedicated to online response and networking in her Brooklyn headquarters.
So, how did the internet take a leading role in 2016? And who’s best positioned to win the online battle to come?
Nuts and bolts
The most pivotal social media messaging hubs are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.
“This is the first election cycle where social media is actually a viable advertising and messaging platform for campaigns,” notes Thomas Sanchez, CEO of Social Driver.
Sanchez’s non-political team at Social Driver works with corporate clients out of an airy downtown D.C. office which could be mistaken for Tom Hanks’s loft in the movie “Big.” The high walls are splashed with art, conceptual dioramas line the halls, workers bounce on core balls, millennials brainstorm in the stocked kitchen and social media is treated as a serious business.
As unaffiliated spectators, Sanchez’s team dissects the 2016 online race with vigor.
What they found has them excited: social media’s significance is still growing.
“In this campaign, we’ve seen a lot of people turning off — turning off the TVs, not paying attention,” Sanchez observes. “But they’re still logging in to their Facebook accounts to see what their family and friends are doing. The old adage was all politics is local. And I think today we can say all politics is social.”
The big four platforms
Facebook has become a default messaging platform, says Sanchez, for campaigns looking to micro-target potential supporters. These posts can take the form of rapid response or pre-planned rollouts.
To get their money’s worth, political social media specialists run what’s called “A/B tests” on two or more potential posts, on the same topic, to see which one takes off.
A list of a million supporters, or targets, can be loaded into Facebook. Then, you “build two lists and they’re going to be based on demographics or giving behavior or voting behavior,” explains Sanchez, “And then you’re going to run advertisements that are very, very limited so that you can lift those conversations and that creative [product] to only those people.”
In other words, they’re not talking to the world. They’re speaking to a select few.
Once the A/B tests are up and running, experts can monitor the posts’ performance in real time.
“You can see which ones are getting more likes; which posts are getting more comments; which posts are getting more shares,” Sanchez reveals, ”And then you add all that up, and you can start to find your engagement rates.”
The winner is then pushed to a wider audience.
Twitter has similar functions, but also serves the unique purpose of immediate message dissemination, injecting its 140 characters into the day’s rapidly changing news cycle.
What happens on Twitter’s metrics when Trump posts a picture of himself eating taco bowl on Cinco de Mayo? “The internet explodes,” laughs David Bresnahan-Mcrae, Social Driver’s digital strategist of public affairs.
The explosion comes down to engagement.
Trump had “over four million people discussing him in the past 15 days, whereas Hillary and Bernie are about 1.5 million in the past few days, so it’s a huge difference,” Bresnahan-Mcrae says.
The simple disparity in volume – and charged content – allowed Trump to gobble up 60 percent of the 2016 Twitter chatter recently, leaving the scraps to opponents.
The GOP’s standard bearer has also seemingly cornered the market on Instagram, which has 400 million total active users per month, who skew heavily young.
Trump already racked up 1.7 million Instagram followers while Clinton hovers closer to the 1.2 million mark. Sanchez calls this a “major opportunity” for both candidates to broaden their reach, especially Clinton.
Snapchat is a harder product to get your arms around since it is newer and doesn’t share as much user data with advertisers.
What we do know about Snapchat is that it’s beloved by the under-35 crowd – and even more so by the 18-24 group – and claims 50 million daily users in the United States.
Still unknown is how campaigns can effectively harness the power of Snapchat’s purposely disappearing content to reach voters still on the fence.
2016 strategies: Clinton v. Trump
The major campaigns will not only diverge in tone going forward but also in strategies for turning the sea of social media users into dedicated supporters.
On the Clinton side, expect the notoriously cautious former secretary of state to step up her online presence.
“Hillary Clinton, in the general election, is going to be much faster than in the primary campaign. She’s going to need to be to be successful on social media,” predicts Sanchez.
A big piece of that could be getting personal.
When the candidates write posts personally, signed with her initials in the case of Clinton, the content performs far better. “You see people responding once they put something out, and you can see waves that go back and forth as there’s more activity on their accounts,” Bersnahan-McRae said.
As for Trump, the billionaire has vowed to continue tweeting. But his campaign has another ingenious plan for spreading its message: selfies.
Beyond investing in major rallies, Sanchez sees Trump’s expenditures going the way of organic social media content. “They’re spending a lot on hats, buttons. And they’re spending a lot of time figuring out how do I get into the selfie of my voter?”
That selfie could very well spread far and wide – much cheaper than a traditional ad campaign.
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales