And the top digital marketer in the presidential race is…

Seven years ago, Barack Obama made history by making social media such an integral part of his presidential campaign. Back then, Obama using MySpace to connect with voters was a novelty; today it’s a must.

Obama spent about $16m on digital marketing during his first campaign, a number that seems almost quaint now. The current candidates’ collective digital marketing spend is forecasted to be more than $1bn, according to Borrell Associates. Darwon Choe, director of marketing at Spongecell, thinks this makes sense, given the nature of today’s world.

“With today’s short news cycles, the smartest campaigns are the ones who are using digital to respond to news, events and the opposition in real time,” says Choe. “Right now, we’re seeing this mainly in social, but as we get further along in the election cycle, we’re going to see real-time creative in paid spots, as well: display, video, perhaps even TV.”

Thinking back to Ron Paul’s $6m “money bomb” in 2007, Choe doesn’t think any of the current candidates have done anything “truly revolutionary” yet. Still, it’s early. The election is more than a year away and already, every candidate is heavily active in digital marketing.


Which one is doing the best job so far? Here are our top five:

5) Rand Paul

It’s highly unlikely that the younger Paul will end up being nominated, but he deserves a spot on the list for being a digital trailblazer. This election has been referred to as “The Snapchat Election” because of social media’s crucial role in helping the candidates reach millennials.

Paul is an active Instagrammer, an early adopter of Vine and the first candidate to get on Snapchat, both as a user and an advertiser.

“There’s a shift to making a conscious effort to reach certain demographics and voting blocks that traditionally, might not be a stronghold of those candidates, and making a conscious effort to reach out to them on their terms,” says Jonathan Lacoste, co-founder of Jebbit, a post-click engagement firm that’s analyzed the digital identities of all the candidates.

Paul was also a Periscope pioneer, live-streaming his time in Iowa for all to see. Several other candidates have used the app at campaign stops, but the Kentucky doctor was the first to broadcast his entire day, creating a sense of intimacy and transparency.

However, despite his digital prowess, Paul can’t rank higher because like many digital marketers before him, he struggles with ROI. According to data compiled by The New York Times, Paul has among the highest “burn rates” in the race, meaning his spending is outpacing his fundraising.

4) Marco Rubio

Rubio is the Republican dark horse, having become a noticeably bigger figure in the election as the race has progressed. Some of the betting sites have even recently renamed him as the favorite to win the ticket.

The same can be said for his digital presence, which has also gotten stronger in time. Not only does Rubio have a presence on just about every platform – including less obvious ones like Pinterest and Flickr – but he’s also very engaged.

Despite having the most Twitter followers of any Republican besides Donald Trump, his feed is full of retweets and Tweets sent directly to his supporters. He also thanks many of them personally on Facebook.


Beyond social, Rubio is one of the only candidates utilizing search ads. Because Google’s news knowledge graphs appear at the top of the search engine results page (SERP), Rubio’s ads ensure that his campaign website ranks first.

The senator from Miami may have ranked higher, but his emails lost him serious points. Researching this article, I had some friends forward me candidates’ emails they receive and signed up for several lists myself.

None of the engagement from Rubio’s social carries over to his newsletter, which comes off as digital panhandling.

I’ve received four emails from his campaign so far, three of which consisted entirely of donation requests. Political emails always ask for donations, but they should have other content, too.

3) Bernie Sanders

Rubio’s weakness is Sanders’ strength. When it comes to email marketing, personalization is the way to go, which Sanders has caught onto.

While Bush and Rubio call me “Friend,” Sanders’ emails address my buddy Erik by his name, in addition to inviting him to nearby events.

The cursor disappeared from my screenshot, but I hovered over the link so you can see that it leads to a map of the what’s happening closest to Erik’s zip code.


According to Lacoste, personalization is one of Sanders’ greatest digital marketing strengths; transparency is the other.

“He has gone above and beyond to convey transparency. When he launched his website, he was much more clear on his stance on the issues and on certain hot-button topics, whereas other candidates were more vague,” says Lacoste, adding that this is likely a factor in his popularity.

According to The New York Times, Sanders raised $26.2m last quarter, second only to Hillary Clinton. His overall fundraising is toward the top of the list, despite publicly stating his opposition to accepting donations from wealthy Super PACs.

Nearly 90% of Sanders’ donations were small (defined as less than $200), which proves that whatever he’s doing to engage his supporters is working.

2) Hillary Clinton

Clinton has been digital from the start, having been first to announce her candidacy via social media. The YouTube announcement amassed nearly 3m views in the first 24 hours and almost 2m more since.

The former First Lady has raised more money than anyone but Bush and has also outspent all of her adversaries by a mile.

It’s unknown how much of those millions went toward digital, but it’s presumably a lot because Clinton is everywhere.


Like Rubio, Clinton is on all the social channels, sending silly snaps to her millennial supporters and appealing to the older women voters with a Pinterest board dedicated to granddaughter gift ideas.

On nearly everyone platforms, her follower count is second only to Trump. Her Facebook dedication to Vice President Joe Biden was Liked nearly 14,000 times within 35 minutes.

Of all the candidates, Clinton also has the strongest SEO. Her ads appear at the top of the SERPs for ‘Hillary Clinton’ and ‘Hillary’ searches. She was also savvy enough to do the same for ‘Hilary’ with one L, taking into account all the people who misspell her name.


1) Donald Trump

Clinton has arguably put the most effort into her digital marketing, but she can’t quite get first place given the fortune she’s spent. By contrast, Trump has barely spent – or raised – any. And yet, CNN‘s most recent analysis has him at the top of the GOP polls with 32% support.

Trump is this election’s disruptor. Everything a politician usually does, he doesn’t: spending a ton of money on his campaign, purchasing voter information data, being congenial. 

Rather than relying on the passive-aggressive TV commercials of yore, Trump blatantly insults the other candidates on social media. His follower counts generally exceed the others’ by millions.


And people love him for it. Trump is so unlike any other presidential candidate we’ve ever seen that he’s managed to snag the highest Q score, just by being himself.

“Trump has done the best job of starting conversations with his own personal Twitter handle. The campaign has done quite remarkably if you look at the spend numbers. From a digital strategic point of view, isn’t that the holy grail, where you’re getting coverage and visibility, and not spending anything?” Lacoste says.

If the presidential race was an industry, Trump would be that cult brand that comes out of nowhere, somehow generating all this buzz without doing any paid advertising. Those disruptors sometimes flame out – remember the Flappy Bird game? – fairly quickly, but others like Airbnb stick around.

It’s too early to tell which way Trump will go, so that’s why we gave him the gold medal for digital marketing.

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