Marketing Lessons from the 2020 Election | Part IV: Narratives & Information Distribution

Welcome to the penultimate episode (part 4/5) in our ongoing analysis of the 2020 US elections. If you haven’t already, check out part one, covering identity & common enemies, part two on positioning & segmentation, and part three on polling problems & growing vs. converting audiences. This time, we’ll look at the memorable power of simplistic narratives, then take a journey into the separate ecosystems that comprise how people acquire information.

As a refresher for those new to this week’s posts:

  • We’re analyzing the election each night this week, because its size and impact provide valuable lessons for marketing, market research, and audience understanding.
  • These analyses are intended to be non-partisan, but your author (me!) is politically progressive, and my perspective is surely colored by that.
  • Comments are welcome, as is disagreement! But please, stay kind and respectful, or the comments will be removed.

Let’s dive in…

#7: Simplistic Narratives May Be Wrong, But They’re Memorable

Politics is an area where the common wisdom and the truth diverge spectacularly. Neither 2016 nor 2020 started that trend, but they’re certainly some of the most powerful examples of it. Here’s just a sampling of the narratives you might have seen (or even think you know!):

The fascinating thing about all of these myths is how true they feel. Feelings are not facts, but data and stories that confirm pre-existing feelings are powerful forces, hard to shake off even when they’re proven wrong.

I think about my own associations with Trump voters. To me it *feels* like they are exclusively white, overwhelming men, own guns, drive big trucks, fly problematic flags, start fights, express racist viewpoints, and consume conspiratorial malarkey instead of news.

But those aren’t “facts.” They’re stereotypes. There are certainly Trump voters with some of those attributes, but there also plenty of Biden voters who have some, too. And on reflection, there’s no way all or even most Trump voters fit those stereotypes. They’re almost as wrong as conservatives stereotyping liberals as living in crime-filled cities, drinking the blood of kidnapped children alongside Tom Hanks, injecting Bill Gates’ tracking microchips, all while being paid to protest by wealthy Jews (oy vey!).

Via: FT’s By The Numbers US Election Analysis

In the minds of political opponents, these stereotypes serve to divide us, to fill us with hatred and fear of the “other side,” and, as we saw in Part I, there’s no more powerful marketing tactic than a common enemy.

What’s so powerful about these mythic narratives is how memorable they are. The real stories aren’t simple. They’re complex, rich with non-conforming data points. Myths have none of those annoying, hard-to-process nuances, so they fit beautifully in our collective imaginations, influencing our behaviors and beliefs. Marketers would be foolish to ignore such overwhelming power to shape opinions.

Marketing Takeaway: Simple narratives don’t need to be 100% accurate to be memorable and influential over an audience. It’s tempting to be correct, factual, and nuanced, but those details might be better served by the “small text” or the asterisk than the primary message.

You’re not you when you’re hungry.
– Snickers

That’s not true! It would be much more accurate to say that, when a person is hungry, some behavioral, mood, and personality traits are heightened, while others are suppressed. Let’s try being nuanced in the narrative:

You may be exhibiting traits other people (and you, yourself) might not like when you’re hungry.
– Snickers?

But would a nuanced, accurate narrative stick in your memory the same way? Doubtful. When I’m at an airport after speaking at a conference, hungry, feeling worn out, I’ll admit, Snickers’ ad campaign has worked on me far too many times. Even though I know the 215 calories of mostly sugar is bad for me, and that the mood lift I’m experiencing is largely psychosomatic, I fall for it. Curse you and your deliriously effective advertising, Snickers!

As marketers, especially in B2B, there’s a bias against making bold claims, stereotyping, or simplifying, and it’s probably working against us.

One of my favorite companies, Wistia, has an immensely compelling product, one that’s selling like hotcakes during the pandemic. Here’s the top of their homepage:

My guess is this message works as a CTA, but it’s not a great narrative builder. It might nudge you to try the product, but it won’t cause Wistia to stick in your mind for years to come.

Whenever I talked about video content (and Wistia as my video host) in my years doing the Whiteboard Friday videos series, the narrative mechanism I used was always:

Video is more engaging and memorable than anything else.

If a hundred people watched a 12-minute video of me teaching them about SEO, that was worth three hundred people reading a blog post of mine on the same subject. When someone watched those videos, their brain’s association with the content, the host, and the brand was massively different than when they read an article. There’s no comparison. Video engages. Video’s memorable. Video works.

Now let’s back up and question what I just told you.

Is it true that video always works better than blogging? No. Does video always engage more than written words? No. Is video always more memorable? Probably not. Could we find plenty of instances of content marketing where text outperformed video? Of course!

So… Was I lying?

It depends. If we’ve taken the stand at a court trial in front of a judge and jury, then yes. The statement “video is more engaging than anything else,” isn’t nuanced or perfectly accurate. It’s a stereotype. A shorthand for a generalization that’s true. Much like how politicians position the “other side” in un-nuanced, simplistic, stereotypical ways and earn their audience’s loyalty, so too can marketers.

We don’t have to stoop low to do this, either. I think it would be wrong for Wistia to smear written content as completely useless. Potential customers would (rightfully) be skeptical of that claim, and distrustful of the company if they did that. But, if Wistia claims, as I did, that “video is more engaging than anything else,” and backed that up with data showing the average retention rate of information and brand memory from video vs. text content, would that be wrong? I don’t think so.

*That* is what we should take away from the success of simple narratives. They work because they stick. We don’t have to lie and manipulate, but we can reduce complicated realities to snackable, memorable, effective messaging. When we see political campaigns do this, we should learn from their manipulation, both because we can turn it into more ethical, applicable marketing of our own AND because we can avoid falling into the stereotyping, de-humanizing trap those messages present.

#8: Information Is Not Evenly Distributed or Consumed

Everyone reads the New York Times, right?

OK, OK… But conservatives all watch Fox News, don’t they? And liberals all listen to NPR, right?

You see where I’m going. Politics is a perfect representation of the media fragmentation that’s been happening for the last 20 years. Americans agree on less and less because they’re no longer exposed to the same facts or stories.

Via The Financial Times

American conservatives may be opposed to universal basic income because they still (falsely) believe that when poor people are given money without strings, they spend it in community-harming ways. Meanwhile, American liberals might ignore the reality that eliminating college debt is technically a regressive tax policy that violates many of their own (admirable) principles about whom government spending should help and how.

I won’t get into the question of how we came to be in this siloed media world. We’re here. It’s getting more severe. And if we want to reach our audiences, we cannot expect them to come to us. We’ve gotta go where they are.

Via Pew Research

In the world of politics, of course, the big sources of influence are reasonable well-known, well-studied, and discoverable. Countless publications and research projects examine media bias, uncover the sources given audiences follow, and (in some cases) seek to discredit sources whose bias is so strong it belies fact and reality.

Right now in the US, there’s a strong correlation between propaganda and conservative media. But in the past, the inverse was true. SparkToro itself has a feature showing media and political engagement activity using methodologies from four well-recognized organizations: Pew Research, AllSides, Ad Fontes Media, and Media Bias/Fact Check.

When I search for an audience that uses the hashtag: #MAGA2020, the results are predictable. They’re more surprising (at least to me) for audiences that use the words “small business owner” (leans conservative), “entrepreneur” (mostly centrist), “founder” or “cofounder” (leans liberal). All of those have roughly the same definition: someone who started and owns a company. But their political behavior online is very obviously different.

It’s not just media outlets and news sources. What we pay attention to is also highly fragmented across the one source we (almost) all share: social media platforms.

Via BBC & Reuters polling

News consumption is trending the same way as the rest of our media habits: to a few social networks, mostly Facebook-owned. On these platforms, the variety of accounts that are followed, interacted-with, and subscribed-to is massive, but there’s no singular pattern we can apply to a given audience. Every group is unique.

This matters A LOT to marketers. Our job is to reach audiences, and in a world divided into silos along every possible vector, no singular media strategy will work. That Snickers campaign that branded me (and millions of other Americans) from 2005-2015 is far less effective without mass market, real-time television, popular print media, radio, outdoor… all those sources have shrunk thanks to the Internet and the pandemic.

If Snickers wants to reach similar percentages of American consumers today, that’s gonna take a very different strategic approach, and a lot more niche plays. Facebook, Google, and YouTube might help, but because every advertiser is on those platforms, most of whom charge a lot more than $0.85 for their product, Snickers’ margins are gonna be hurting if they try to play that game.

Similarly, more niche products can’t afford to compete in the big media publications, whose prestige may be nice to show execs, but whose ROI, frankly, blows. Nor can niche players build any competitive advantage by relying exclusively on Facebook and Google’s ad products. If everyone’s there, and everyone’s competing for the same eyeballs, it’s exceptionally hard to beat all those potential advertisers bidding for the same customers.

If you’re in national politics today, and understand how fragmented audiences are, your incentives are clear (though disturbing). Serve your base, sabotage your opponents, and don’t worry much about the consequences of “losing” the moderates. In most geographies, moderates barely exist in enough quantity to make a difference. You’re more likely to be challenged by an opponent further to the left (if you’re on the left) or right (if you’re on the right) than you are to experience any real threat from the opposition party.

Marketing Takeaway: Like politicians, you’ve gotta go where your audiences are. There’s no singular set of big media players that reach everyone, and using the major ad platforms can’t build a compelling marketing advantage over the competition.

Political and corporate marketing alike can follow this simple to understand, though challenging to execute-upon process.

Surveys, interviews, analytics, competitive analyses, and passively-collected behavioral data are all parts of solving this equation. What’s clear is that media isn’t going back to the way it was. Marketers *have* to become audience researchers, cognizant of the landscape of sources that reach their targets so they can build better campaigns.

It’s not just about finding your audience, either. We have to recognize that things we assume everyone knows about our market, the problem-space, our competitors, you-name-it… not everyone knows!

The siloing of information consumption means that, yes, it’s hard to reach everyone in the same handful of places. But it also means that what one part of your audience believes or acknowledges is different from what every one else does.

As a founder, I find it endlessly frustrating to tell my company’s story over and over hundreds of times, only to find that after two years of doing so, the market penetration of people who know what SparkToro is hovers under 5% (I’m guessing here, but you get the point). Didn’t they read that article about us in publication XYZ? Or hear the podcast with super-important-podcaster ABC? Or attend that industry event everyone goes to? Or read that blog post that got so much traffic?


Deep breathe. Media fragmentation is salient here, too. As a marketer, you can’t count on repetition nor source diversity alone. You’ve got to combine them. Telling memorable messages, again and again, in all the different places your varied audiences pays attention, is the only way to truly get your brand where it needs to be. Yes, it’s harder than before, and yes, there’s more competition than ever.

The great part is that marketers aren’t the only ones discovering this. Executives and business owners know it, too, and that’s why there’s so much demand and need for great marketers who can succeed at this challenging work.

Thanks for sticking with me through part IV. Tomorrow night, we’ll wrap up with part V, the final episode of series, covering the power of brand familiarity and the peculiar weakness of product. Look forward to reading your takes in the comments!