The Savvy Politician's Secret Weapon: Influencer Marketing

In 2008, former President Barack Obama changed electoral politics forever, using the internet to organize supporters, advertise, defend against attacks and communicate with constituents. The campaign’s official YouTube content generated over 14.5 million hours of viewership.

That advertising equivalent on broadcast TV would cost an astronomical $47 million. But not only was the Obama campaign maximizing its value online, it was also having a bigger impact.

Obama’s online videos were more effective than TV ads because viewers chose to watch them and/or received them from a friend, instead of having their TV shows interrupted.

President Donald Trump was clearly taking notes because in 2016, while U.S. Senate campaigns spent a paltry 4%-7% of their media budgets on digital media, Trump spent a robust 44% of his budget on digital.

But for Trump, it wasn’t just the amount he was spending — it was also the content he was creating. Coming from the world of New York tabloids, beauty pageants and reality television, Trump knew how to grab headlines and create a spectacle — and he repeatedly used this skill set to suck the oxygen out of every news cycle and make sure the headline was always “Trump.”



Obama and Trump are certainly very different people who ran very different campaigns, but both started their runs for President as perceived “long shots” and both wittingly or unwittingly used influencer marketing strategies to spread content, build their following, and ultimately claim victory.  

We’re now seeing influencer marketing strategies everywhere in the political world.

Most notable was Mike Bloomberg’s recent foray into the world of memes, which produced mixed results due to misunderstandings about how online works. Here are a few tips politicians need to know to find success online.

Create Intimacy – The most successful influencers bring you into their world and make you feel like a friend. In the political world, there may be no better example than Elizabeth Warren’s “selfie” campaign. Coined after the term for taking a picture of one’s self (even though Warren’s volunteers take the photos), Warren has been taking pics with supporters (anyone who wants one) at every campaign rally she holds. 

At a town hall in Chicago, Warren offered her selfie invite to a crowd of 3,600. It would take Warren three hours (post-rally) to accommodate every request. But guess what? Those selfies add up, and three weeks ago Warren celebrated her 100,000th selfie. And you can be sure that everyone who gets one is hurrying to share that intimate moment on their Instagram and Facebook account, amplifying their Warren support to friends and family. 

Know What Content Works – Content that is authentic, funny, and/or courageous tends to work in the political world. A good hashtag or anything involving pets can also be effective. 

When Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was first elected to Congress, a right-wing Twitter account dug up an old video of her dancing in college, in an attempt to shame her. Instead, the video went viral (over 8 million views), showcasing the candidate’s authenticity, joy, and appeal. 

Another example happened when Canadian politician Jagmeet Singh was accosted at a political event by a prejudiced woman claiming he was with the “Muslim Brotherhood” and supported Sharia law (Singh is a practicing Sikh, not a Muslim). Singh responded with such an abundance of patience and non-violence that the clip went viral worldwide, flooding Facebook pages and being retweeted by the likes of CNN’s Van Jones and Jake Tapper.

A great example of an effective hashtag was #MyBernieStory, which the Bernie Sanders campaign launched through the BERN app — an online organizing tool that allows supporters to record a video, share it on social media, and encourage others to participate. The hashtag soared to the top of Twitter's trending list.

Leverage Other Influencers – Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is 78 years old, so it’s somewhat ironic that he is (by far) the most popular choice for voters ages 18-34. But it’s not an accident. While the Senator may be old, he knows where young people congregate.

Sanders has done interviews with The Breakfast Club and Ebro In the Morning, New York’s two biggest hip-hop stations. He joined pop starCardi B for an in-depth interview about health care, police brutality, student debt, immigration, taxes, and jobs at a Detroit nail salon, and he sat down with podcast hero Joe Rogan for an interview that has been viewed more than 11 million times on YouTube. He has also been endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez.

Know Your Platforms – Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are great, but new platforms are constantly emerging, and it’s up to every politician to keep their eye on the next big thing. At this moment in time that is TikTok. 

Inspired by Ocasio-Cortez, a 26-year-old socialist truck driver named Joshua Collins is running to represent Washington state’s 10th district in Congress, and he’s using TikTok to do it. Collins’ videos have received over 570,000 likes on the platform, often being viewed anywhere from a few thousand to a hundred thousand times each.

Collins’ local campaign has now become something of a national spectacle, and people across the country who otherwise would have never known about his campaign, now donate to him — thanks to Tiktok.

U.S. adults now spend an average of 6 hours per day with digital media.And on the digital playing field, influencer marketing is booming. The market is expected to reach $15 billion by 2022 (up from $8 billion in 2019). Influencer Kylie Jenner is now the world's youngest billionaire and "Ninja," a gamer, has more social media engagement than any professional athlete on the planet.

It’s a changing world, and politics (and politicians) will have to change with it. 

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