Marketers can learn a ton by watching politicians run their social campaigns. The more I watch, the more I notice that social media and politicians go together ridiculously well.

Consider that social media is all about hyperconnectivity. And politicians are by nature compulsive connectors.

In every era, they find a way to connect with the populace. They express powerful words and ideas at the right moment, using whatever media available. Take Bill Clinton. Long before the rise of social media, he was able to connect across racial and economic lines. In every era, politicians
trailblaze the use of media by sheer necessity.

But our era today is different than all others: we have social media, the ultimate connector. It’s efficient, targeted, spontaneous. It has a whole host of benefits, too many to name. Plus, it’s free. We’re ALL using it.

Social media is a politician’s dream come true. (Or nightmare, if their opponents are better at it.) The 2008 election showed, for the first time, how new media can be a deciding factor in any campaign. Obama’s social campaigns had a laid-back, credible, gut-level appeal that brought in record-breaking donations.

Eight years later, social media has only grown stronger and more pervasive. As a marketer, the ’16 political season brings tons of riches. Where do we look to gain the best marketing insights? Answer: pay close attention to candidates’ social media profiles. Follow their daily victories and missteps. Try to determine who’s doing the best, and why. Surfaces can be misleading.

At every step of the way, politicians offer perfect lessons on how and how not to do digtal marketing (not just social media). At their best, political campaigns pioneer new techniques we’d do well to emulate. At the worst, they are cautionary tales.

First, let’s address the elephant in the room: Trump’s social media juggernaut. He has 8M followers on Facebook. That’s more than double the 3.9M of Hillary or the 4M of Bernie Sanders. But looking at totals only tells part of the story. To understand more, we used FanPage Karma, a social analytics tool that can track fan growth. (FanPage Karmais a social media manager’s best friend. Helps you engage more fans and reach out to whole communities. Gives insights and posting strategies. Lets you check your performance, and that of competitors, on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. It’s tremendous.)

Speaking of the word tremendous – one of Trump’s top five used words in speeches – the Donald has double the followers as Hillary and Bernie. But keep in mind, he started with a higher base. Maybe because of his “The Apprentice” fame, or from being a high-profile icon for so long. Whatever the reason, look at his growth rate and his advantage seems less impressive.

Trump’s fan growth rate (Since June 2015) is still highest, at 370%, but not by much. Hillary’s is 345%, only a 7% difference, considered statistically insignificant. (I verified this with a pro.) Plus, if you just look at the last few days, Hillary’s growth rate is three times that of Trump’s and 13 times that of Sanders.

The lesson there is that potential reach and fan size isn’t everything.

Now let’s look at engagement rates. It might seem that Trump’s fan participation is higher, with 12M Likes compared to Hillary’s almost 5M and Bernie’s roughly 3M. But the engagement rates aren’t as different as you might think. Because Hillary has a smaller base of followers, she only needs half the fan interactions as Trump to get the same engagement rate.

Here’s another interesting thing: Bernie and Hillary have a similar number of Facebook fans. But Hillary’s engagement level has soared twice as high as Bernie’s in the past month. The digital marketer’s lesson is this: number of fans is just part of the equation. Engagement rate counts for more because it points to the quality of the fans, not just the quantity. It tells you if your message is resonating. If people are listening, sharing and discussing, you’re doing great. All that’s left is to grow the channel. And if your fans aren’t engaging, high numbers won’t help you. It’s a signal you need to change your messaging and approach.

Let’s look at Twitter. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) leads with 1.3 times the followers as Hillary and more than 3.5 times that of Sanders.  But arguably it’s Bernie who has galvanized the power of Twitter. He’s had a 4,500% growth in followers on Twitter since June 2015. He surpasses Trump in engagement. Recently, so does Hilary.

Again, Trump’s bigger numbers don’t mean everything when you read between the lines. Neither do yours, or your competitors. Shoot for engagement and growth!

Now, let’s talk endorsements. It’s unclear what effect high-profile endorsements will have on candidates’ social media campaigns. Obama has one of the largest followings on Twitter, with 43.71M followers at last count. He endorsed Hillary. It will be interesting to see if, when, and how he spreads Hillary’s message through Twitter.

Same goes for celebs. It’s common knowledge that they have an outrageous number of Twitter followers. Ellen Degeneres has over 60M. Will Smith, over 75M. Shakira, over 104M! So the number of subscribers the candidates themselves have doesn’t tell the whole story. The reach of candidates’ followers plays a part in determining who’s winning on Twitter.

Lesson to digital marketers? Don’t despair if your follower numbers aren’t breathtaking. You can spread your message with the help of influencers. These don’t have to be influencers you pay. Approach people who already have an affinity for your brand. They may be more than happy to become brand ambassadors. Doing this will amplify your message exponentially. It will drive awareness and new users to your brand. It can increase the amount of analytics data you have, to see which messages are resonating and with who.

Can the candidates win over their target audiences? Find out in coming months, when we look at their approaches and results. It’s all about learning how to be better marketers ourselves, and having fun doing it. Stay tuned for our next installment, where we focus on Sanders.