Last week Donald Trump defied expectations to become America's 45th president. While some are still scratching their heads over the victory, at least one man has a theory that Trump won by following the same rules that makes any content go viral in today's connected world. Here's what Ben Kaplan the CEO of public-relations firm PR Hacker had to say in this installment of our regular feature: One Big Question.
When Donald Trump sent a thunderbolt to the Democratic and Republican political establishment on Tuesday night, it was more than just a stunning political upset – it marked a fundamental shift in how political campaigns at every level will soon be fought and won. So how did he do it? Why did a 70-year-old real estate tycoon with a quick Twitter finger become the poster boy for the most far-reaching viral political movement in modern US history?
At my firm, PR Hacker, we know a thing or two about how to spread ideas in scrappy and surprising ways: We're the ones hired to help brands like Budweiser, Milk-Bone, Smucker's, and Del Monte create marketing content that can spread quickly and "go viral." Trump's meteoric rise was built on the same new rules that govern our everyday work. Here's how he did it:
1. Viral emotions triggered high Trump voter turnout
In the final math, Trump's ability to trigger and sustain viral emotions (like anger and anxiety) mattered more than Clinton's sophisticated "ground game" and high TV ad spending in driving voter turnout. By repeatedly activating emotions like anger and anxiety – which along with "awe" comprise a trifecta of the most powerful viral emotions – Trump was able to compel his supporters to flood the polls even without much logistical support. Note that Trump wasn't the first candidate to capitalize on a new communication channel: FDR's Fireside Chats leveraged the sensory power of radio; JFK's televised debates showcased his photogenic charisma; Obama's use of social media gave voters new ways to interact and participate. For Trump, it was the rise of "viral PR" – the use of online and offline communication channels to activate emotions that cause group actions.
2. Negative news strengthened Trump's position
Trump's high frequency of controversial tweets and comments made him stronger in the aggregate because they usurped the news cycle while reminding voters that Trump is above all else a non-establishment outsider (the key message of this nontraditional election cycle). Why did these controversies fail to take down Trump when they would ordinarily kill the chances of any other candidate? Again, it was because of his high emotional activation: Even when Trump's individual controversies hurt him substantially (our data indicated that Trump's video scandal had 20x more online chatter than the "Brangelina divorce"), the scandals didn't pack a knockout punch because of the other message being communicated – that the billionaire populist is a political outsider who doesn't talk like a politician. The result: Trump supporters dug in even deeper in their support of him (especially when the news cycle shifted back to Clinton) because they were already so emotionally invested in him and his political movement.
3. Message simplicity made Trump's ideas stick
Trump's battle-cry to "build the wall" and implement "America first" foreign policy could be understood by voters in five seconds flat – and proved far easier to spread by word-of-mouth than Clinton's equivalent five-point plan. Consider the single most viral issue of the 2016 presidential campaign: Trump's wall with Mexico. Not only could building a border wall be visualized by anyone in five seconds flat, but it also symbolized Trump's tough stand on illegal immigration in a surprising way that would never be suggested by an ordinary politician. As a result, Trump was able to promulgate a trending viral story that sheathed his "outsider" and " tough fighter" message in a single understandable issue. The ironic aspect of all of this, of course, is that America's first viral president and most famous Twitter user is a septuagenarian born long before the invention of social media. It's no accident that for decades Trump has reportedly clipped newspaper articles by hand, written short quips on them in a black felt marker, and distributed these annotated musings by mail to friends and adversaries alike. Trump was tweeting before there was Twitter.