Hillary Clinton’s Digital Staff Gives 6 Marketing Lessons They’ve Learned From This Bizarre Election

Including brand-jacking, throwbacks and more

There's just over four weeks left in this year's bizarre presidential race, and it's crunch time for Hillary Clinton's campaign.

From working a plethora of social platforms to testing sophisticated forms of data targeting and handling Internet trolls, the 2016 presidential election has been the most digital race in American history—making it full of lessons for marketers.

On Wednesday night, General Assembly hosted a panel in its New York office with three digital staffers from her campaign, Hillary for America, to talk about the presidential nominee's digital strategy and what they've learned since Clinton started campaigning in April 2015.

Here are excerpts from the panel, which have been lightly edited.

1. The perils of super-targeted advertising

Unlike previous presidential elections, this year's candidates are under more scrutiny than ever, particularly on social media where they can easily be called out.

Case in point: The #Notmyabuela campaign last December targeted young Hispanics, but it was criticized as a tone-deaf article and sparked backlash on social media.

The piece was written by a Latino Clinton staffer and is part of a bigger blog effort called The Feed. The blog is designed to feel like people are reading a story—albeit a one-sided article—about Clinton that resembles the Vox Media, Mic or BuzzFeed style of writing that targets millennials.

"One of the particular challenges with #Notmyabuela was that it was also written in sort of a listicle format, which felt BuzzFeedy—we were trying to make it fun, trying to make it in that spirit, and I think unfortunately it was sort of a perfect storm of things not working out there," acknowledged Andrew Forrest, director of audience development at Hillary for America.

The backlash on the piece speaks to the challenges in trying to relate with specific demographics like Hispanics or millennials through digital media. Jessica Morales-Rocketto, Hillary for America's director of digital organizing, pointed to the campaign as an example of the dangers political campaigns face when they are too niche with targeting.

"What we learned from that is that we want to make sure that we're talking to as broad of an audience as possible, whether that's as broad of a millennial audience as possible or a broad Latino audience," she said.

"We didn't know everything. Even having culturally competent staffers with that background—we can still mistakes. Frankly, we probably should have taken a little bit more inspiration from our candidate who is somebody who does a great job hearing feedback and listening. We've taken that to heart."

2. But sometimes brand hijacking is good

That said, sometimes the folks lashing out on social media are also the people most capable of doing the heavy lifting in creating viral content.

After Tuesday's vice presidential debate when Indiana Governor Mike Pence accused his rival Senator Tim Kaine of "whipping out that Mexican thing" in reference to Donald Trump's remarks about Mexican immigrants, social chatter about the phrase skyrocketed.

A Clinton supporter in Portland, Ore. named Danilo Alfaro then created a website called ThatMexicanThing.com and links it to Clinton's website.

That kind of work is reminiscent of the brand-jacking that marketers have dealt with in recent years. But that's not necessarily a bad thing for Clinton's campaign—as long as the person is working in her favor.

"We don't think of it as hijacking—it would be foolish to think that we could control the message in this age of social media where everybody's talking," Morales-Rocketto said. "We want people to feel like they're part of the campaign, and if the way that you're going to feel part of it is by creating a hilarious website, please do. It's definitely not official, but it's fun."

3. Ad bombardments don't always work