Twelve months ago, if you asked someone who Bernie Sanders was, most people outside the US wouldn’t know (myself included). So at the start of the year when my Thai colleagues started ‘feeling the bern‘ all the way here in Bangkok, I was curious to investigate the circumstances leading to such excitement half the world away. I assumed his meteoric rise to fame was the result of sensationalist claims fanned by the media… boy was I wrong.
Starting his campaign in May 2015 while deemed to be a ‘fringe’ candidate against a presumptive nominee, the senator from Vermont has had a long arduous hill to climb. Suffering from low name recognition and a general media bias towards the kind of prime-time earned media coverage that his competitors enjoyed, Bernie’s campaign has worked to overcome many challenges as it tried to remain competitive in a heated race. Fast forward one year and the Senator has amassed a national movement unlike any other in recent history and is the most widely trusted candidate out of all hopefuls that compete(d) in the current cycle.
The Senator’s campaign may be reminiscent of Obama’s historic 2008 grassroots campaign… for two key reasons, it is not. The first, that we’ve come a long way since the days of experimental and siloed social media when social messaging augmented broadcast narratives. In the last 8 years, social mediums have evolved into an entirely independent beast; one that now actively rivals the corporate broadcast oligarchy in reach and far outstrips it in terms of utility. The second, is that digital disruption has largely democratized previously linear models of information flow, mass organization and (most importantly) enterprise financing. Essentially speaking, we are far more advanced and organized than ourselves from 8 years ago. As an example, eMarketer dubbed 2016 as ‘The First Billion-Dollar Digital Ad Election‘, with Digital/Mobile ranking higher than TV & Phone Canvassing as tools for mobilization.
As a brand strategist, I was naturally curious about the tactics driving high levels of excitement, growth and grass-root participation for the Sanders campaign. To break down my findings in a format that is more consumption friendly for fellow marketers, I juxtaposed them along the Marketing Funnel model.
(Please keep in mind that this piece is penned from the perspective of a digital marketer and does not contain any political perspectives; just facts.)
So here it goes…
In the 2016 election cycle, almost all presidential candidates used the standard technology stack comprising a Website and third-party CRM, Ad Buying & Tracking tools to achieve reach; the Sanders campaign is no exception here. Shane Snow at Contently did a great piece on the subject that outlines their CMS, user tracking, engagement and influence. The article finds that while Clinton leads in influence and Trump leads with the most number of followers, Sanders has the most shared material. An interactive tool called Email for President 2016 also reveals that Sanders has the largest email list and the lowest ‘delete without opening rate’ when compared with Clinton & Trump.
A writeup on Digital Marketer lists some more interesting findings around digital ad buys, revealing that Sanders uses a singular consistent CTA, ‘Join The Political Revolution’, with 3 & 5 creative variations of banner ads across Desktop & Mobile respectively. In contrast, Hillary Clinton uses multiple CTA’s and 97 creative variations across Desktop and 143 on mobile. Clinton is also the loudest advertiser with ad buys being placed across 440 publishers compared to just 11 for Sanders.
From a content perspective, authenticity and consistency in addressing real issues faced by the electorate are the senators biggest weapon for overwhelming appeal. As a brand, this sets the foundation for great resonance. A YouTube video chronicling 30 years of the Senator’s speeches shows how he has consistently connected with human and cultural truths over the course of his career. The fact that Bernie has stood for and advocated the same values since the start of his career puts him in a unique position that his competitors cannot lay claim to. Add to this, moments like ‘Birdie Sanders‘ and this is stuff that you simply can’t make up!
With the help of social sharing and influencers like Rosario Dawson, The Hulk Mark Ruffalo, Spike Lee (amongst countless others) to seed Bernie’s authentic message, the Internet has indeed been berning up. In less than a year, his social channels have organically grown to considerable size. Bernie’s team uses the campaign’s social outposts to keep followings upwards of 4.2M on Facebook, 2.25M on Twitter & 1.3M on Instagram engaged on all matters relating to the campaign. Even niche networks like Quora are an active hotbed for conversations surrounding the campaign with over 2300 questions, posed and diligently answered by supporters and campaign staff. Snapchat filters in the lead-up to Iowa were also a major moment for the campaign and applications like Bernie Photo Booth have helped turn Sanders into a platform-agnostic viral hit.
Apart from the campaign’s website being used to recruit volunteers to man phone banks, a make-shift digital HQ exists on Reddit with over 230K followers, run by self appointed officers of the Bernie Sanders enterprise to power community and rally mobilizations, voter registration and fundraising drives. With the Presidential hopeful’s commitment to not accept a penny from special interests and corporations, it makes his campaign that much more reliant on individual contributions. Given that the campaign is also the only one paying their interns, this adds additional burden on the campaign’s machinery and message to convince and move voters further down the funnel.
As a result of a strong message that resonates and dedicated community building, Bernie boasts the most engaged audience in the current election cycle. The Senator is further able to convert these online audiences into large numbers offline, consistently drawing upwards of tens of thousands at his rallies all across the country; his largest pulling out a mammoth crowd of 28,536 people in Brooklyn mid-April. Yesterday, Oakland saw an attendance of well over 26,000+.
By comparison, Donald Trump managed to pull around 25000+ for a one-time occurrence as most his rallies usually average less than the 10K mark. Bernie’s democratic competitor, Hillary Clinton gambles with keeping her crowds small and controllable.
The consistent outpouring of thousands at offline events who are initiated into the campaign’s machinery has seen Bernie’s phenomenal rise in national support with polls that previously had him 60 points behind his challenger now within earshot in recent times. So unexpected is his base of support that at times, even the polls have underestimated him and been proved wrong.
When it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, voters have done so with over 7.6 million individual contributions with an average total size of $27. Having raised $182.2M till March and an additional $26.9M in April, over 2.4M Americans have invested in Bernie Sanders’s run for the presidency. SuperPAC’s and other independent groups have raised less than $600,000 towards that total and, amusingly, one SuperPAC named BillionairesForBernie.org has raised $0 according to a tally of the contributions by OpenSecrets.org.
The fact that 94% of the entire amount of $212M raised to date has been done through online donations, means that we are truly seeing the foundations for a bona-fide consumer driven digital enterprise.
Adoption & Advocacy
Any digital enterprise is incomplete without tools to power it’s progress and here is where Bernie’s advocates and supporters really outperform all other candidate races (perhaps in the entire history of US elections). Under the hood of Bernie Sanders’s Political Revolution is an army of 1000+ techies and coders spitting out apps and innovations at the rate of almost 1 per week, building an infrastructure of platforms for fellow supporters to organize and increase the Senator’s base of support.
Evolving from the unofficial HQ on Reddit for Sanders, a passionate group of digital producers ended up forming a sub-group called “Coders for Sanders” (CDS). Describing themselves as “a loose collective of developers, designers, and creatives working to elect Bernie Sanders for President”, the group is responsible for building such platforms as FeelTheBern.org, a search-friendly, sharing optimized, rich-media website that clearly lays out in a sourced, fact-based manner exactly what Bernie has done, said, and proposed on every issue Americans care about. This wikipedia for the Sanders campaign was created by 125+ unpaid volunteers in 32 days! Since launching, the site has gone on to rake 3M+ unique visits solely through organic search and social.
CDS is also responsible for other developments such as BernieBNB, a web application to help rally goers to find a play to stay over at fellow Bernie supporters’ homes across the country. Field The Bern is a mobile application available on iOS & Android that gamifies the process of local canvassing with users being able to record their interactions and gain points nationally. More innovations by the group include BernieQR (a mailing list signup app), Bernie 2016 Events (a nationwide event finder for campaign related events) and Connect With Bernie (a meeting place for Bernie supporters to organize their efforts and stay in touch with the campaign).
One would think that the roll-out of innovations stops here but that couldn’t be more further from the truth. As an unequivocal first, campaign staffers have even shared some of the project source codes on the campaign’s GitHub page. (Yes, the campaign actually HAS a GitHub page!)
Independently created site VoteForBernie.org, hosts a virtual map that shows a breakdown of when and where to vote for your states democratic primary or caucas including details like registration deadlines & polling precincts. Driven primarily by organic search and social, the site has close to 4M visitors since it’s launch.
I Like Bernie But answers common questions about Sanders by linking to other sites or articles that offer analysis of his proposed policies for those who are on the fence about supporting the Senator.
If you thought this was it, then sites like bernkit.com will literally blow your mind. The website is a listing of all the tools created for the campaign by volunteers to date and, at last count, listed 80 different tools providing a range of utilities from Ride Sharing to calculating tax under Bernie’s policies. Bernie has inadvertently created his own free enterprise incubator.
Having brought about the creation of a grassroots enterprise in a way that has never been seen before in democratic elections, the Bernie Sanders campaign is built on a bedrock of trust, collaboration and innovation.
As a social enterprise that actively addresses problems faced along each step of the voter customer journey with creative digital solutions, the campaign is indeed a blueprint for brand and social enterprise success.
I sincerely hope more Marketers and C-Suite roundtables would embody the principles of communication and community building that have driven the Senator’s campaign from virtually nothing to a phenomenal measure of success. In a digital age where brands rely on the exchange of trust & capital to develop and ensure consistent support, we haven’t gotten anywhere close to the level of service that this free enterprise delivers to it’s supporters (and vice-versa). As a brand marketer I’ve paid out the backend to get the kind of advocacy and innovation that these guys give to the Senator’s campaign for free. That alone makes for a case study in motivations.
Ask yourself, when was the last time you came across a brand that provided such level of service, commitment and utility?
Brought together, the combined efforts of Bernie Sanders’s Political Revolution has potentially changed the landscape of US Elections for generations to come. It is not just about winning the democratic nomination but implementing a system that can drive real grassroots change… and in that regard, Bernie has already won.
Got any more examples of digital innovations and platforms created around the US Election 2016? Share in the comments and let me know. #BringItOn
P.S., Let’s keep the comments section free of political discussions. I respect the right of each individual to choose whichever candidate they have chosen to support.