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

Including brand-jacking, throwbacks and more

Headshot of Lauren Johnson

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

Presidential elections are notorious for blanketing TV programs and media with ads in the final few weeks of the campaign, which is a tactic that Clinton used following the first presidential debate in September.

However, that approach doesn't always work, particularly when it comes to smaller, more targeted media buys, according to Danielle Butterfield, deputy director of digital advertising at Hillary for America.

"We kind of did too much the first debate—we booked a lot of placements to go up the next morning and found out that we weren't able to turn things around as quickly as we wanted to be able to," she said.

"For this next debate, we're going to really do the bare minimum and go up with a 30-second ad that can run across all placements. Generally speaking, you can't do everything with a campaign—you have 35 days left, so going on in places where you feel like you can reach the largest audience and get the most bang for your buck is generally how we make decisions."

4. Throwback photos are so popular that they double as ads

Clinton is on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest and Snapchat, but the presidential hopeful has particularly found a niche on Instagram, where the campaign often posts old photos of her.

While Clinton has been on Twitter since 2013, she's only been on Instagram since 2015. "The people who follow Hillary Clinton on Instagram are people who followed her starting in this campaign," Forrest said. "That's a really different type of person or really different mindset than someone who has been following her for many years."


"I'm Hillary Clinton and I've always approved this message."

A video posted by Hillary Clinton (@hillaryclinton) on

That also applies to her paid media strategy.

"We've done a lot of work to tap into that—when people see old imagery of her, they're much more interested in seeing what we have to say, so we take advantage of it," Butterfield said.

5. Her social game doesn't always have an agenda

Meanwhile, Hillary's Twitter account resembles more of a "boss Hillary" personality since journalists, media and influencers are typically the people most plugged into the platform. "It's the image that we're projecting to certain people there," Forrest explained.

Hillary is also utilizing Snapchat. A few weeks ago, the campaign ran a piece in People magazine's Snapchat Discover channel about Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine's funniest jobs. "That was on People magazine's Snapchat channel, which is not a place where most people are going to find their political news," Forrest said. "We spend a lot of time thinking about how do we get our message into other platforms that are a little bit surprising, a little bit unexpected."

Crafting those kinds of posts means that not every piece of content ties directly back to one of Clinton's causes.

"We're really trying to penetrate the digital landscape fully and sometimes that has almost nothing to do with what Hillary Clinton has scheduled that day or how she feels about a policy or position—it's about what we're building with the community and the conversations that we're having with voters," Morales-Rocketto said.

6. Political candidates have measurement woes, too

Similar to brand marketers who struggle to measure how their digital ads perform in the real world, it's challenging to figure out which ads changed how a person plans to vote.

"Voter turnout is an extremely hard thing to measure—it's why digital is a very difficult thing to get credit," Butterfield said. "It's really difficult to measure offline effects."

Specifically, Butterfield said her team has to judge whether the campaign's own data is better than what platforms like YouTube and Facebook provide. For example, Clinton's campaign relies on Facebook and YouTube for data about language that's used to serve someone either a Spanish or English content. The platforms also provide the campaign with data to hone in demographically on moms or college students.

"To me, the best combination is when you can use your own first-party data, but then lean on platforms to do the heavy lifting," Butterfield said.

As one example of how data was used on the fly to create a campaign, Clinton's team received data during the primary election that said people, specifically African-American voters, didn't know when the election was. The data was then quickly turned into an ad, Butterfield said.

"We got that data, we quickly pivoted and talked with our video team on the ground," she said. "We were able to get them to record several young people around calling out the election date and turn that around in a matter of 10 or so hours."

@laurenjohnson lauren.johnson@adweek.com Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.