10 Things We Can Learn about Social Media from the 2016 Presidential Campaign

by Neil Patel

Last updated on July 25th, 2017

This presidential campaign may be the craziest, most divisive one in the history of the United States. At least that’s what social media would have us believe.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get all political in this post.

My forte is marketing, not politics.

Let’s face it, though. Politics is on people’s minds right now.

Between the candidates and their numerous supporters, you’d be hard pressed to get on social media these days without hearing someone’s political views.

It used to be that TV, radio, and print ads were the primary means for candidates to debate each other and spread their views.

Then Barack Obama reinvented social media in politics during his 2008 and 2012 presidential runs. Now social media is a popular go-to for all the political candidates this 2016 election season.

The media, political, and data analysts are all hard at work dissecting the social media story of this year’s election; and, being a digital and social media marketing guru, I figured I’d take a run at explaining how all the hype of this political circus affects the rest of us.

Here are a few social media lessons I’ve learned watching the race.

1. Social Media Matters

Everyone is biased, and social media shapes and broadcasts these biases in profound ways.

Every time there’s a revolution around the world — Arab Spring, Occupy Movement, Ukraine, Syria, whatever it is — social media plays a part.

In short, social media is changing the world.

Global Digital Snapshot

Nearly half of the over 7 billion people alive today (or about 3.4 billion people) are online, and 67 percent of them are active social media users. That comes out to 31 percent of the global population (or about 2.3 billion people) using social media.

By comparison, 126.14 million people voted in the 2012 election out of 218.96 million eligible voters, totaling 58 percent of the eligible population participating.

Politicians understand how important social media is, and every major candidate has at least a Facebook and Twitter page.

Each of the major contenders leading into last month’s national conventions has an impressive social media following totaling over 1 million. In fact, here’s a breakdown of the major candidates.

Rivals and Frontrunners

Only a few hundred elite celebrities and global brands can top the Twitter followings of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican rival Donald Trump.

They’re also the most followed candidates in their respective parties, which is a good indication of why they secured the nominations. It’s the kind of thing traditional news media has to pay attention to, which is why…

2. Social Media Drives Traditional Media

The news cycle has drastically changed in the past decade since the rise of the social network.

The new news cycle

Journalists often get much of their news from following key social media accounts where the news stories are also shared by readers/viewers, which has shifted the news cycle into a new paradigm.

uses of social media

Savvy political candidates realize using social media platforms can reach as many news outlets as a press conference in a much more efficient manner.

By posting their views on Facebook and Twitter, politicians are able to gain immediate insight into how the public responds and can even interact candidly with their followers directly, a fact that draws a lot of younger people to use social media to research the issues.

3. Millennials Use Social Media More

A recent study by Pew Research shows that 18- to 29-year-olds are using social media as their primary research tool during the 2016 election cycle.

As people get older, social media becomes less and less important, with cable and local news being the highest rated. While Generation X is split on the issue of social media, Baby Boomers largely ignore it for more traditional means of information gathering.

18 - 29 year old social media

As time moves on, expect social media to have a greater impact on elections.

4. Everyone Knows Who Donald Trump Is

As Adweek’s Social Times (and pretty much every other news outlet) has reported, Donald Trump has the largest and most engaged social media following among the presidential candidates.

Love him or hate him, you’ve heard of Donald Trump, and his social media exploits alone have earned him quite a bit of free attention from the mainstream media.

The New York Times estimates The Donald has received nearly $2 billion in free media coverage by being boastful, unapologetic, and downright offensive on social media.

free media coverage

Authenticity goes a long way in attracting social media followers, and that also happens to be the major reason many voters pledge their support to the showman that is Donald Trump.

He may say offensive things, but you can be assured Trump means what Trump says.

There’s a lesson here.

The more unhinged, bombastic, and outrageous you are, the more free press you’ll get.

People love a good fight. People love to feel angry. People love to watch celebrities go at it.

If you want to learn more about how people feel toward Trump’s policies and ideals, all you have to do is search for the right hashtags.

And that brings up an important point.

5. Hashtags Are Still Important

Social media marketing campaigns can really stand out when done correctly, and an important piece of that puzzle is the hashtag.

Hashtags allow accounts with large followings to create rallying points for their messages in a way that’s easy to track. Here’s how the leading candidates’ campaign slogan hashtags compare to each other.

hashtag daily average

Trump’s #MakeAmericaGreatAgain and Clinton’s #ImWithHer are neck-and-neck, though even combined, they don’t match the spread of Bernie Sanders’s #FeelTheBern slogan, which racked up a staggering 75,000 daily uses during the Vermont Senator’s run.

All this data shows that politicians are definitely catering to social media.

6. Politicians Cater to Social Media

Pew Research looked at the total number of posts Clinton, Trump, and Sanders posted on each social media platform in the weeks leading up to the 2016 RNC and DNC conventions and found the numbers were consistent across the board.

hashtag numbers

Each candidate posted nearly twice as much on Twitter as Facebook, and all posted more than any other political candidates before them. Despite the extra attention paid to Twitter, engagement was much higher on Facebook, and Trump had much more than the other candidates.

ad spending

However, Clinton and Sanders also have strong showings on other social networks like Instagram and YouTube, where visual content trumps links and text. To learn more about how you can build a social strategy as strong as these politicians, check out my social media beginner’s guide.

Clinton even got an endorsement from the queen of Instagram, Kim Kardashian.

Kim Clinton

Politicians pandering to celebrities is nothing new, but social media has become the preferred avenue for reaching younger voting demographics, which not only get the attention of politicians, but also social networks.

Although most political discussions online are taking place between regular users sharing news stories, Internet users are increasingly following politicians on social media platforms, with Facebook and Twitter leading the pack.

social media brands

It’s important to understand, however, these numbers don’t necessarily equate to registered voters who support a candidate, merely people whose attention they have.

7. Followers Don’t Necessarily Equate to Votes

When looking at each candidate’s social media accounts, Trump is in the lead by a long shot; and, although social media following doesn’t necessarily equate to votes, Trump and Clinton (the candidates with the largest social media followings) secured their party nominations when the dust settled.

candidates across social media

Although Trump’s social media presence dominates Clinton’s, she received 16,847,084 votes in the Democratic primary compared to Trump’s 14,009,107.

This shows that Trump knows how to rile up a crowd, but he’s still trailing Clinton in the ability to get voters into the booth to actually cast their votes.

8. Followers Are Useful in Polling Data

Regardless of the discrepancies, social media is as good as any other polling data in forecasting the winner of each race.

Support for Bernie Sanders in the voting booths didn’t match his online support, but both the polls and social media followings pretty closely matched how the Republican race turned out.


Some people may not always vote the way they talk online, some refrain from discussing politics on social media, and some accounts are fake, but it all seems to work out pretty close to reality.

9. Different Brands Use Social Media in Different Ways

Much of the differences in how candidates are viewed on social media stems from how they interact with their followers. Each candidate has their own personal style, and none is particularly right or wrong.

On Twitter, Trump is more likely to retweet the general public, whereas Clinton posts links to her campaign page, and Sanders focuses on media links.


These patterns reflect each candidate’s political style and branding.

You should be creating your own unique style in the way that most effectively builds your online sales funnel and fits your brand voice.

10. Memes Can Be Made in Unexpected Ways

The more political candidates use social media, the more faux pas we’re likely to see from them, especially when the news media is hungry for hot political stories during the election season.

While each candidate attempts to create viral photos and videos, sometimes they do so in unexpected ways, as the Internet is an uncontrollable beast.

One of my personal favorites was when Jeb Bush provided Twitter Photoshop enthusiasts with pics of him in front of a green screen.

Jeb Bush Green Screen

It didn’t take long for the Internet to respond by placing Bush in one hilarious situation…


After another hilarious situation…

Pulp Bush

After another hilarious situation…

Laser Finger

Street Fighter

Trump Bush

Finger Smell


Social media usage is on the rise, and social networks are becoming an important part of every political strategy.

From candidates in representative democracies to long-standing dictatorships, every leader in the world recognizes the power of social media to make or break governments and their heads of state.

If someone as important as the future leader of the free world understands the power of social media to communicate with both their constituents and the traditional media, your brand should be focusing on it as well.

What lessons have you learned about social media and marketing from the presidential campaigns?

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10 Things We Can Learn about Social Media from the 2016 Presidential Campaign



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Neil Patel

Neil Patel is the co-founder of Crazy Egg and Hello Bar. He helps companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue.


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  1. Tiffany says:
    November 7, 2016 at 10:20 am

    I could not agree more with this post. I think social media has influenced this election, and not in the best way. So many people are social media share and comment on posts that are simply not true. They do not check the credibleness of the source. And it is like a plague once they hit that share button.

  2. Paulette says:
    October 17, 2016 at 7:15 am

    I think that this is a great way to advertise. This generation is all about the computer. When advertising this way you can get out anything you want to say almost instantly. Most people have smartphones and can access these types of thing so I think that its a smart idea.

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