As consultants, we spend lots of time ensuring our clients are well-positioned and well-prepared for the strategic and organizational challenges they will face during a given election cycle. No campaign highlights the importance of that more than Donald Trump’s presidential effort.
The Trump campaign wasn’t prepared for the massive amount of advertising funds he’d need in the general. Entertaining as his late-night tweets might be, this habit signaled to consultants that The Donald didn’t have a consulting team steering his digital operation and preparing for the future. His team denied the reality that self-funding in a general election cycle isn’t possible.
Now, Trump finds himself in digital panic mode. We’re roughly three months from November and his finance chairman has admitted he cannot self-fund his run against the billion-dollar juggernaut known as the Clinton campaign. Trump has to mobilize his supporters with a sophisticated turnout operation that he didn’t need to power him through a primary.
Ad Age magazine excoriated Trump for having an initial e-blast spam rate at 60 percent compared to Clinton’s that is under 1 percent. Why is his rate higher than Clinton’s? The answer is simple: opt-in versus buying lists. Hillary Clinton has been cultivating a small-donor list ever since her run for Senate in 2000. She smartly kept that machine alive by providing handling and care when necessary to not let the list go inactive. President Obama is said to have loaned the Clinton campaign his email list as well.
The trick to building a “yuuuge” list of small donors is to build them organically and over a period of time. Trump was soliciting donations during the primary, but not aggressively. He needed to build lists through other means like offering surveys to capture donor info, giveaways in exchange for signups, driving traffic to his campaign website and using splash pages to capture potential donors’ info. This all could have been done, but Trump’s campaign failed to forecast the eventual need for small, online donors post-primary.
Here’s the good news if you’re a Trump supporter: he’s getting his act together. Trump is now utilizing survey ads on Facebook and other social media to harness the Right’s anger with Clinton with ads asking: “Should Hillary go to jail? Yes or no.” In order to submit your opinion, you must provide an email address and zip code. It’s smart and it appears to be working: Trump announced that he raised more than $51 million in June — $26 million of it through the Internet.
Trump was beginning to focus on a disciplined message when the campaign sent out a press release promoting an upcoming speech to attack Clinton for using the office of secretary of state “as her own personal hedge fund.” That’s until it all went wrong when the website they released drove people to LyingCrookedHillary.com, which was nothing, but a blank page. (It’s now active.)
Immediately, the national media and Clinton campaign mocked Trump for having a failure to launch. They suggested that the campaign wasn’t well organized enough to even coordinate a press release attack. On the one hand, Clinton and the media were right as the website was blank.
On the other, this was the first indication that the Trump campaign was working to organize supporters and donors online. The press release that announced the website concluded by saying “Sign up on LyingCrookedHillary.com for future updates on the latest laws Hillary has broken.” This was a clever tactic to garner more signups and capture donor data. Admittedly, it lacked execution. The campaign wasn’t ready for the press release to be sent as the website wasn’t ready to go live. It appears that the press shop wasn’t coordinating with the digital guys. This mistake could have been prevented with a strong consulting team working in tandem.
The raw and unvarnished nature of Trump is echoed by his campaign’s social media, whether by design or accident. It rings with a certain authenticity that’s in stark contrast to Clinton who is too scripted.
It’s an asset for Trump. But he must tighten up his execution if he wants to harness the power of the Internet to raise massive amounts of campaign cash and engage with millions of grassroots supporters before November.
As consultants, we’ve all had stubborn clients who have the urge to focus only on the here and now. The trick is to convince them to project into the future and prepare.
Trump is being pummeled with a blitz of negative advertising across the country. This was to be expected. The problem is that Trump doesn’t have the financial resources to rebut the attacks except through earned media appearances.
If there’s one thing to learn from watching the Trump campaign, it’s that we must look a mile ahead and convince our clients to invest in and prepare an adequate infrastructure for future challenges.
John Thomas is the founder and president of Thomas Partners Strategies a Republican advertising and strategy firm.