From Making Headlines to Sustaining Engagement: What Donald Trump Can Learn From Marketers

As the winners and losers of the 2016 US elections continue to ponder the results, one trend is clear: Social media affected the November election by generating a mass conversation that polarized voters and helped Donald Trump project his political image onto a new playing field.

More than Hilary Clinton and other Democratic and Republican primary competitors, Trump made the medium his message. He used Twitter to create a political persona based on 140-character, headline-making tweets that provided real-time commentary.

Twitter was a powerful approach for reaching 300 million followers. But Trump should understand it may undermine a long-term need to create new communities of support and drive policy adoption.

As president, Donald Trump needs to think and act like a relationship-builder, and not just a brand-maker. He needs to drive long-term engagement to nurture constituent relationships that generate broader demand for his ideas.

But can this reality-TV star evolve from reactionary, finger-pointing tweet headlines to chief storyteller and coalition builder?

Moving from headlines to constituent engagement will challenge Trump as social media supports his preference for reaction over ideas, and his need for immediate gratification over the slow development of solutions. Of his 34,098 tweets* between June 2015 and December 2016, most fueled a steady offensive campaign to…

  • Promote polls, articles, and factoids that favored him: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” November 27, 2016
  • Criticize Hilary Clinton, either directly or by linking to negative articles: “Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?” September 30, 2016
  • Attack those who offended his friends and advisers: “The media is spending more time doing a forensic analysis of Melania’s speech than the FBI spent on Hillary’s emails.” July 20, 2016

As he moves from provocateur to US President, what can Trump learn from marketers about how to build virtual relationships, grow influence, and sustain engagement?

Trump might consider four marketing-tested ideas in his new role as US President.

1. Develop a playbook for long-term engagement

The stakes are different for a President Trump, and the path forward requires a new approach.

Messages should build on themes, offer solutions, speak to benefits, and invoke action. Communications can and should include facts and information, but the appeal should be personal, more human. Trump needs to help the audience understand the need for change, his vision for the future, and how it will happen.

Tweets will help amplify those solutions, build communities of support, and promote advocacy, but they must follow an engagement strategy and not be used as standalone communication.

Social media should promote public discourse, but not try to control it.

2. Balance broadcast messaging with stakeholder-specific appeals

The election is over, but Trump has opted to stay in the spotlight. He’s shared news of his visits to the Midwest to celebrate his victory with supporters and his discussions with foreign officials who contacted him to pass on congratulations.

He’s also continued to use a steady stream of angry, reactive tweets at a time when brand building is no longer needed. President Trump needs an updated communications approach to win over critics and nonbelievers.

As president, he should move from inflammatory tweets to focused communications to various constituents. That requires an arsenal of targeted messages to diverse stakeholders intended to show how his policies may benefit distinct groups of voters whose needs don’t neatly fit into his broad appeals.

Trump’s next challenge is to know his audience and segment his messages.

3. Own the solution, not just the channel

Reacting to news and events is an effective way to get recognized, especially when you are new to the game. Over time, however, your audience expects details.

President Trump, unlike candidate Trump, will need to provide the specifics to how he will Make America Great Again and share those messages across several channels. He’ll also need to remind voters again and again of how he is driving change when change is not apparent. Most of all, he’ll need to avoid the trap of passive commentary. As a self-proclaimed agent of change, he should set the public agenda and work across multiple stakeholder groups and channels to shape public opinion.

Trump should continually speak to his agenda and demonstrate how his actions are having an impact.

4. Personalize and humanize. Tell stories.

Donald Trump is not an effective storyteller, but his communications tapped into the hopes and fears of his audience. He understood what triggers to pull to connect with voters and build a following. That will get harder as he builds long-term initiatives in the slow-moving corridors of Congress.

To maintain momentum, Trump can humanize his vision using stories and trends to convey value in his case for change. Success stories exist in cities, states, or even other Western countries where new ideas have taken root and delivered desired results. He can also use surrogates or influencers with their own following and narrative to help deliver his messages.

Most importantly, Trump will want to find additional ways to build empathy and trust. In this area, the transition may be easier, but he’ll need to consistently work from a prepared script.

* * *

Donald Trump ran a successful campaign emboldened by provocative, strong messages and a steady drumbeat of Twitter posts. Running the government will require a different approach as he rearticulates his vision with a program for change.

He may want to borrow a tip or two from the marketer’s playbook: Build platforms, don’t focus on transactions; create sustained engagement (tell stories); and personalize messages to the unique needs of stakeholders. He may just see higher engagement and conversion rates in support of his ideas and policies.

* “Clinton v. Trump: Live Twitter Stats,” The Wall Street Journal, updated December 8, 2016

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