The power of online influencers has never been clearer than now, with a reality show personality and social media star in the White House. There’s been a lot of discussion about the converging forces that helped Donald Trump squeak out a narrow victory along electoral vote lines. He managed to get just enough votes in just enough of the right places to win.

Yet there’s an important force that Trump used to win that’s receiving less attention: the Internet. Twice now, Hillary Clinton’s lack of understanding around the new power of the Internet and its individual influencers has led to her defeat. Trump didn’t make that mistake. Perhaps he would say he’s the best at the Internet. No one has ever done Twitter better. And maybe it’s worth asking: Is there something to that assertion?

The rise of social media has meant that, for years now, individuals have been able to reach large audiences outside the eye of mainstream media. In terms of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, Clinton began the general election period behind Trump and never caught up. Just before the election, the social media analytics company Quintly released a study on the social performance of both campaigns. By the end of October 2016, Clinton had 8 million Facebook fans compared to 12 million for Trump, and had a smaller, but still significant, gap on Twitter.

This gap wasn’t for lack of effort on Clinton’s part; her campaign’s brute force of delivering tweets and posts on Facebook equaled or exceeded Trump’s, and she consistently published more sponsored posts on Facebook. But today, it’s not just about the quantity of messages, but also their quality. It’s about using big data to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time for maximum reach and impact.

A true digital influencer

Trump got much more mileage from his content. Quintly shows that Trump’s Twitter and Facebook posts consistently garnered two times as many interactions (likes, comments, retweets, replies, and shares) as Clinton’s. To understand why, we need to recognize that the Internet is about community; it’s a broadcast medium, but it’s also an ongoing conversation between both people who agree and disagree on a wide variety of issues. Trump regularly makes a show of retweeting his followers. Saturday Night Live did a parody of this, making the point that a man who aspires to be President should spend less time retweeting high school kids and random fellow travelers online. Yet Trump continues to behave like a true digital influencer—he almost instinctively traffics in Twitter’s ability to have a conversation with one or two people and the world simultaneously. He doesn’t leave it to his team; instead, he dialogues with ordinary people and the powerful alike, in real time, as events unfold. Importantly, there’s no filter: His responses feel unique, fresh, and authentic (even if you don’t like him or his message).

It’s hard to know how many layers of approval Clinton’s tweets may have endured before they saw the light of day. It’s hard to imagine her tweeting with a passionate high school kid, even if she might personally enjoy that. Certainly, authentically engaging in real-time dialogue to encourage sharing among loyal followers seemed like a lower priority. The Clinton campaign opted instead for reactive quips and strong images that ultimately met with limited success.

Marketing automation and targeting

We know Russian bots helped drive fake news and clickbait that confused voters on the issues, and Forbes cited research that shows bots also beefed up Trump’s Instagram following to drive more views and chatter. Meanwhile, firms like Cambridge Analytica extrapolated from the success of big data among marketing machines previously focused on selling us shoes T-shirts, razors, and snack packs to target the most receptive audiences. These online marketing and data-driven tactics were also critical to Trump’s success.

As Vice’s Motherboard noted (emphasis my own):

‘Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven,’ Alexander Nix remembers. On the day of the third presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, Trump's team tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions above all via Facebook. The messages differed for the most part only in microscopic details, in order to target the recipients in the optimal psychological way: different headings, colors, captions, with a photo or video. This fine-tuning reaches all the way down to the smallest groups, Nix explained in an interview with us. ‘We can address villages or apartment blocks in a targeted way. Even individuals.’

Ultimately, Trump’s team successfully used far fewer staff and resources to perform an effective end run around the mainstream media. Who needs to knock on doors when you can deliver carefully curated content—content that discourages people you don’t want to vote and pumps up the audience you need at the polls—straight to devices they already have in their pocket, their phone? Trump’s success shows that even a small team can create dramatic results if they understand how to:

  • Use the power of influencers. Find out who online is speaking about your organization and your issues via an online landscape analysis. Seek them out as an ally, and partner with them on campaigns. Silicon Valley Community Foundation, for example, recently worked with technologists at Fission to connect with e-influencers on topics like immigration and education, all in an effort to provide greater inclusion during the foundation’s strategic grantmaking review.
  • Employ modern marketing automation. There are some great tools that can help you search the Internet for relevant content and influencers—including tools you may already be paying for in your customer relationship management system. There’s also software that can help you respond or post automatically in real time based on rules you set ahead of time, such as at Blackbaud.
  • Use data-driven research to narrow-target. For-profit companies have become more more sophisticated in using software to find the people most likely to be receptive to a message relevant to their lives. Smart messaging segmentation can cultivate energetic audiences based on their interests, not just yours. Color of Change, for example, has built enormous cultural and political influence by engaging with different audiences in different ways, depending on their interests, their behaviors, and the platforms they use.

The age of broadcast outreach is over. Consider how you can go beyond opens, clicks, conversions, and mere reach, and engage in more sophisticated, higher-impact-for-fewer-dollars techniques online.