How Donald Trump won an election with digital marketing

Donald TrumpPolitics has always been the laboratory for advertising and marketing. The 2016 US Presidential Elections were no different, writes Oliver Woods.

Donald Trump’s election to the United States Presidency has sent shockwaves around the world. With inaccurate polling, press coverage dripping with disdain and a candidate that broke all the conventional rules, even the most perceptive political commentators were left stunned.

As Trump makes his first significant policy moves and appointments, the professions most closely associated with elections face unprecedented scrutiny. Pollsters desperately explained themselves, with one going so far as to eat a bug on live television after predicting a Clinton victory.

Oliver Woods

Oliver Woods

Digital marketing: the Trump campaign’s strategy was widely panned. A Bloomberg journalist claimed that Trump’s digital marketing team ‘knew they were going to lose’ after touring their set-up. A respected political journalist labeled it a ‘Comically Bad Digital Campaign’.  

In reality, Trump’s unexpected victory was powered by digital. In one of his few post-election interviews, he said social media ‘helped me win’. Google said Trump “won the election in search”. His audiences of Facebook Likes & Twitter Followers were both millions ahead of Clinton on Election Day. Trump beat Clinton every single state in Facebook interest.

How did Trump do it? Here are the six elements behind his digital marketing victory.

Loyal & Able Talent

Trump’s small team was composed of family members, loyal company men and trusted contractors. His Director of Digital, Brad Parscale, was a cut-price web contractor for Trump’s businesses, with no political marketing experience. Dan Scavino, the campaign’s Social Media Director, first met Trump as a teenager as a golf caddie and spent over a decade working for the latter’s businesses, only to switch to Trump’s digital marketing team in mid-2015.

Despite this ‘attitude over aptitude’ approach, both men have been lauded as digital marketing geniuses since the election result. One of their greatest strengths? They knew when to reach out to outsiders for help. Gary Coby, Trump’s Director of Advertising, lauded a Facebook employee James Barnes as their ‘Most Valuable Player’ for his massive contribution to the campaign’s digital marketing.

Below-The-Radar Data Operation

There remains a widely held perception that the campaign’s digital operations were crudely hewn together, a communications rollercoaster defined by Trump’s fluctuating temperament. A leading Republican strategist (who opposed Trump) said “data died” as election results streamed in.

There was method to the madness. Trump’s data operation operated largely below the radar, blending the best of their own activities to build up a database of supporters, the Republican National Committee’s own significant investments in data and a ‘shady’ third party consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, which had provided data for the successful ‘Leave’ campaign in the Brexit referendum.

For Trump, they apparently leveraged an innovative approach that blended different data sources, with a focus on people who felt left out of the political process’.  This rich perspective on voters enabled Parscale and the rest of the team to make the unconventional decisions they did – particularly their focus on rural voters.

‘Direct Social’

Good strategy has three elements: a diagnosis of a challenge, a policy for dealing with that challenge, and actions that bring that policy to life.

Trump nailed on all accounts in the final weeks of the campaign: he zeroed his advertising dollars on a handful of critical swing states, while Clinton’s team spread their ad buys across the whole country.

With Trump blanketing traditional media, YouTube played a critical role in the digital execution of this rigorous targeting approach. The campaign openly shared their strategy of limiting his YouTube spend to surgically bombard crucial swing states (Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania) with videos of his speeches, attack ads and interviews.  

Authentic Engagement

Trump’s emphasis on Twitter as an engagement tool and a direct way of addressing his supporters is unmistakable.

His tactics were simple: The platform became an “unvarnished extension of his public persona”.  Trump’s ‘straight talk’ contrasted strikingly with the ‘managed and staged’ feel of Hilary’s slick design and clever copywriting.

Another tactic that generated controversy was retweeting supporters content, at one point inadvertently sharing a Mussolini quote. While liberal commentators continue to lash out at Trump’s superficially careless heroing of supportive tweets, it helps generate more conversation and drive more views on Trump’s Twitter feed.

“Aggressive Learning”

As Mark Zuckerberg publicly plays down the role of his platform in the election, Republicans were publicly celebrating Facebook’s role in Trump’s win. Parscale went so far as to say that “Facebook was the single most important platform to help grow our fundraising base.”

Multi-variate testing was their not-so-secret weapon. Working in conjunction with the Republican National Committee, Parscale’s team was testing up to 60,000 variations of Facebook Ads a day for fundraising alone. This enabled them to generate $90 million in August and increasing amounts as the campaign went on.

Beyond fundraising, the campaign realised that policy-focused content performed better than negative messaging – and they used this to guide Trump to dial up his policy content in his rallies.

Digital Demobilisation

Attack ads are common in the brutal cut and thrust of American politics. But Trump’s campaign went further: they inadvertently admitted to journalists late in the campaign that they had implemented what they openly called a ‘voter suppression’ strategy.

Targeting primarily three segments – “idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans” – the campaign would micro-target these groups through Facebook, sharing polarising content that would ‘sow doubt’ about Clinton.

Concluding Remarks

Trump’s digital strategy connected with voters online in unique and unusual ways.

He built digital engagement at scale, relying on his existing base of online fans as a mobilization base and tactics that flew below the radar of standard online political marketing.

Most critical of all, Trump has destroyed the conventional narrative that Republicans lag behind Democrats when it comes to digital.

Oliver Woods is the co-founder of Ho Chi Minh City-based digital marketing agency Red²


  1. Ramy
    1 Dec 16
    6:29 pm

  2. One can only hope that the folks predicting political events are not working at NASA in the meteor observatory department. Similarly, one can only hope that The Donald’s marketing team don’t join NASA meteor watch team either. We may then be forced into buying Trump Impact protection gear.

  3. Not How Donald Trump Won an Election
    2 Dec 16
    10:57 am

  4. … thats the headline of your article, because you don’t tell us how.


    M.Twain / W.Churchill
    (Depending on which search engine you use).

    And that starts to get us more to the point of how Trump really won. He played the media and the real modern game of ‘Hoopla’. There is also a great book on this topic by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, FYI.

    He played the media and put ‘Hoopla’ into all the channels by giving them what they
    wanted, a daily ridiculous amount of ridiculous soundbites. Then depending where you got your information, it was spun to appeal to the ‘witch-hunting fork-pitching’ medieval instincts in the far right, that were fed up with their lot and a modern upper middle-class media club that told them what not to think, and what was acceptable to think.

    Trump won by putting soundbites into the online media mix, that pleased the lazy traditional media and appealed those fed up with working hard and getting gruel.

    For all your ‘buzz-words’ and digital ‘connecting babble’ you don’t tell us how he won, and if we look at your conclusion its very generic and inconclusive.

    “He relied on his existing online fans as a mobilization base that flew below the radar of standard online political marketing. Most critical of all, Trump has destroyed the conventional narrative that Republicans lag behind Democrats when it comes to digital.”

    Most critical of all he won. Did he mobilize a small fan base online and get them to release daily bits of ‘hoopla soundbites’ that got far more traction and attention than they deserved? Yes.

    Now tell us why these soundbites got far more reach than they deserved and why they connected with a mass audience, and we can start to learn something.

    Its easy to label something “Below-The-Radar Data Operation”. Its much harder to strip it down and understand it. And when we jazz-hand clients with these trending-babble words and the results we promised don’t match, they remove their business from our part of the industry and put their dollars somewhere else.

  5. Denial
    2 Dec 16
    12:09 pm

  6. For me the more important question is not how Trump won but why.

    Trump won because the little people are sick of establishment career politicians who hang on to their jobs for life…. while promising little people better lives…. and not delivering.

  7. Get Real
    3 Dec 16
    7:39 am

  8. Ok. The article is typical social media post rational back filling. Trump won because he had ten years of hard core brand building on TV behind him. He is a STAR. That’s why all the sound bites resonated. Not be cause of social media. Because of the power of TV to change the way people think.

  9. Ramy
    4 Dec 16
    12:31 am

  10. @GetReal couldn’t agree with you more. The TV watching mid-west America chugged their beer straight outta The Trump Soda Machine.

  11. Getting there
    4 Dec 16
    1:11 am

  12. Agreed his 10 years TV meant he had an audience with the media and public, but that doesn’t explain why his soundbites resonated with everyday people.

  13. Ramy
    4 Dec 16
    9:25 pm

  14. @gettingthere good point. DT was clearly a seasoned Washington insider and a fund giver. He knew the inner workings and in 2016, became a credible critic to the public, singing from the “everyone is dirty in that town and I am a-gonna clean it up” American songbook.

    28 Dec 16
    6:18 pm

  16. 1. It is very disturbing to draw these lessons from the Trump campaign. One of the most powerful driver FAKE NEWS is omitted.
    2. More than Trump’s Authentic engagement it was the lack of connection from Hillary’s side. If tweeting the way he does is authentic engagement then god save the world.

  17. Anonymous
    29 Dec 16
    11:10 am

  18. @Asit great article in SCMP this morning. Very well reasoned out. Agree with you on the lack of connection for HC. It prolly was exemplified on the last night on seeing two ageing JBJ & the Boss.

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