Influencers And The Election: How Online Creators Are Influencing The Polls
When you think about the 2020 Presidential election, you likely aren’t thinking about influencers. But low and behold, the two go together more than you many would know.
In fact, during the early stages of the election cycle, Democratic hopefuls were using paid influencer marketing strategies to gain traction. For instance, the Michael Bloomberg campaign partnered with influencer meme accounts like @KaleSalad and @Tank.Sinatra as a means to increase awareness. Agency execs told Digiday that the buzz created by Bloomberg had spurned an increased interest from political candidates in paid influencer marketing strategies.
Now, with the election just a couple of weeks away, there will be a more dedicated push to work with influencers and celebrities on organic social media posts.
“There’s campaigns in progress and some already launched,” says Brendan Gahan, the Chief Social Officer at Mekanism. “However, I think [influencer marketing is] wildly under-utilized. What other medium can you get young voters to listen and pay attention to for hours on end? It’s not TV. It’s not print. Influencers are the medium that can accomplish that.”
Back in 2016, traditional campaign activities like door-to-door canvassing were still the foundation of presidential campaigns. An influencer partnership or a viral post of support from a social media star would have been a welcome bonus for candidates. Fast forward to 2020, and amid an ongoing global pandemic that’s made in-person campaigning difficult, much of the battlefield for the election has been transported online. And now, with social media only continuing to grow in prominence, getting a boost from influencers on platforms like Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube is an increasingly important campaign tactic.
“We are forced to do everything virtual,” says Adrienne Elrod, the Director of Surrogate Strategy for Biden’s campaign, “We’re forced to do more [Instagram] Lives. We’re forced to do more Twitter conversations. We’re forced to go to Occupy Democrats.”
But influencers’ part in this election isn’t limited to A-list celebrity endorsements. In fact, Biden campaign strategists told Recode in a recent interview that some of its strongest support may come from influencers who speak to smaller but more targeted audiences. These would be considered “micro-influencers”. These online personalities are likely to have a more potent impact on persuadable voters from a particular community; specifically for those who live in a swing state. So when Biden does an Instagram Live chat with an influencer you’re not familiar with, keep in mind that this person is likely speaking to an audience that can be particularly useful for his campaign agenda.
“We’re bringing their fan base into the campaign,” Elrod said. “And that is really allowing us to be more specific and more targeted in our approach and in our reach.”
Influencers have all but taken over our social platforms and transformed themselves into modern-day celebrities. And the influencer marketing industry has grown into an $8 billion dollar industry in 2019, it’s projected to grow to $15 billion by 2022. Influencers are the future of celebrity and, no pun intended, influence. It’s no surprise that political figures are more and more, coming around to the notion of using these influencers to help enhance their campaigning.
Voting Registration Goes Social
Over the past couple of weeks, ahead of National Voter Registration Day, Instagram partnered with TurboVote to make voter registration as simple as possible for U.S. voters. Instagram is connecting US voters with the information they need to get registered, and on Election Day are incentivizes users even further, providing an “I voted” sticker so users can share their voting experience with the rest of the Instagram community.
Instagram is utilizing ads in both the standard Feed and Stories, giving users an easy way to get up-to-date information on how to register, how to update their registration, how to look up their state’s voting rules, and more.
With the most uncertain election in modern American history fast approaching on November 6th, social networks are doing one final push to get their users registered to vote. These efforts align with National Voter Registration Day, which accentuates the ongoing efforts of companies like Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat to get people to the polls – whether in person or via mail-in ballots.
Stating it had helped over 750,000 U.S. users get registered to vote, Snapchat announced new voter-focused programming with a wide array of celebrities, including Snoop Dogg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former President Barack Obama. The social platform also launched some new Snap Originals (the company’s short-form pieces of content) themed around the U.S. election.
Platforms like Twitter have also put voter registration in the spotlight. On September 22nd, all U.S. Twitter users were sent a prompt asking them to register or confirm their voter registration through TurboVote. These reminder prompts supplemented the company’s existing voting information hub and its #YourVoiceYourVote campaign. Twitter recruited popular accounts like Chrissy Teigen and Marshmello to promote a link to Vote.org’s registration check page, utilizing original voice notes while also adding new hashtag emojis linked to #NationalVoterRegistrationDay and #VoteReady.
We only do marketing that works.
Influencer Strategy Is Built On Finding Audiences Where They Are
For the 2020 election, Biden has developed a formula for working with influencers: He sits down at home, usually in front of a plant-filled backdrop and a window, while an influencer asks him open-ended questions. These “influencer interviews” are often streamed on Instagram Live, but also pop up on Facebook and YouTube on occasion.
They are not exactly advertisements or endorsement videos, but the goal appears to be nearly the same – engage with influencers (the people who have credibility with specific audiences) and get those influencers’ audiences thinking about Biden. These types of free-flowing Q and A’s allow candidates to stick to their core messaging and talking points while connecting with audiences on a personal level.
The Biden campaign insists that this influencer movement is serious. “We’re not using celebrities just to launch canvass kickoffs or go around from living room to living room in Iowa and have these small, intimate conversations,” Elrod says. “We’re actually using them in a way where we can bring in their audience, and bring their audience into what we’re doing on the campaign.”
Political Influencing On Social Media Is Bigger Than The Biden Campaign
Biden isn’t the only one utilizing influencers to shift the ballots. A litany of other groups have also begun enlisting influencers and meme accounts to boost voter turnout in November. Pacronym, a political action committee affiliated with ACRONYM, is running a swing-state-focused effort alongside comedian Ilana Glazer, who boasts 1.3 million Instagram followers. The concept revolves around doing video chat interviews with other celebrities like Zoë Kravitz and Eric Andre in an effort to encourage people who may not be thrilled about Biden to vote for him anyway, along with other Democratic candidates down the ballot.
NextGen America, the progressive advocacy nonprofit and PAC created in 2013 founded by billionaire Tom Steyer, is looking for all sorts of influencers; and not just from a specific industry. They are seeking those who focus on lifestyle, beauty, fitness, and even comedians as well, all in an effort to reach the younger audience where they are (online) and encourage them to vote.
And let’s not overlook the utilization of nano-influencers. These somewhat under-the-radar influencers are people who might only have a few thousand followers but speak to a very specific audience. That might be a religious leader or a popular local mom, talking about particular issues in a particular area.
Samuel Woolley told Recode during a recent interview that “what we’re seeing with nano-influencers is sort of a form of digital astroturfing or inorganic political mobilization.” He notes that it’s difficult to actually identify these campaigns, because they’re often doing the hiring off-platform. But while the potential impact of these partnerships can be argued by marketers far and wide, one inescapable truth remains; influencers matter more than ever.
“Influencers are not an afterthought. The idea that influencers are, in some cases, the people who have the most credibility or bring the most bona fides in people’s social feeds is a really powerful one and something that we, as the campaign, want to embrace.”
-Christian Tom, head of digital partnerships for the Biden campaign
Influencers Effect On Voter Turnout In 2020
When it comes to youth voter turnout, which continues to trail far behind that of older voters, it’s a trend that has been present for decades. But with the increased emphasis on reaching this demographic, could 2020 be the year that young voters buck the trend?
Organizations like the NBA has been very effective at increasing the votes of both millennials and members of Gen Z. These high-profile athletes are influencers in their own right, and their advocacy has encouraged even younger audiences, particularly young African American citizens, to be aware of how important it is to vote. The NBA partnered with More Than a Vote to continue the push for further activism and voting turnout.
As we enter the final stages of what has been one of the most contentious elections in history, the focus on voter turnout has been magnified. A recent Harvard Youth Poll found that younger voters’ traditionally low turnout may be changing in 2020: 63% of its respondents between the ages of 18-29 said they would “definitely be voting,” in comparison to the 47% who said so in 2016.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to then-President Barack Obama, poured over election return data following the 2016 presidential election. “Michelle Obama and I did a lot of soul searching trying to figure out what happened,” said Jarrett during a virtual discussion moderated by Harvard Law School. “I think the number that really jumped out at us was that nearly 100 million eligible Americans did not vote. That’s a big number in a country that depends on democracy, which requires civic engagement and participation at the most fundamental level.”
Jarrett and Obama helped launch When We All Vote in 2018, a non-partisan organization with a mission to change the culture around voting and help increase voter turnout amongst young people and people of color, two groups that have historically voted in disproportionately low numbers. Driven in part by anemic voter turnout figures, Jarrett shared her insights on how to engage voters leading up to the 2020 election.
The first thing Jarrett says we should all do is “make sure that you are registered to vote and once you’re registered, make a plan for how you’re going to vote.” Due to the ongoing global pandemic, Jarrett stressed the importance of knowing your options and preparing in advance to cast your ballot, whether in person or by mail.
When asked about how to engage with young voters specifically, Jarrett laid out a strategy of meeting voters where they are, and that’s on social media. She acknowledged that a traditional media strategy simply won’t reach Gen-Z voters, and she described how important using social media and influencers has been for organizations like When We All Vote.
“I think we are leaning on local leaders to tell us who are the organizations in their community who are most impactful and to help connect us with the leaders on the ground, so that we can make sure again, that we’re meeting people where they are,” she said.
When it comes to utilizing influencers for political campaigns, it’s crucial to find an influencer with a personal connection to whatever cause is being promoted. This is increasingly important as the digital political ads landscape continues to shift.
James Nord, the head of marketing agency Fohr, told MorningConsult in 2019, “If Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, everyone said we’re not doing political advertising anymore, there would be a big desire for campaigns to make sure that they had a voice inside of those platforms, and I could definitely see influencers becoming part of that voice.”
It goes without saying that influencer marketing is here to stay, and the profound effect they have on their audience has even political candidates tapping in. But will the use of influencer voices to help spread the word around the importance of voting translate into increased turnout? Only time will tell.