*This article was originally posted by AdAge.
By Oded Netzer and Verena Schoenmueller
October 9, 2017
Almost a year after the election, we are just beginning to wrap our heads around the role of social media in American politics. Last week, Facebook turned over 3,000 Russia-linked ads to Congress. But Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election is just the tip of the iceberg – surfacing a level of divisive discourse that increases with each new tweet and reminds us that America continues to be torn by extremes.
Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and columnist, captured the current climate well when he suggested that Republicans think of Democrats as godless, Nordstrom-loving, weenies who read The Atlantic and U.S. News & World Report, while Democrats dismiss Republicans as ignorant, NRA-obsessed, fanatics drinking Budweiser, watching Fox News and surfing the Drudge Report.
An exaggeration? Not so much. We explored the nation’s political divide in new research, uncovering that liberals and conservatives don’t simply see things differently, they experience things differently – in their preferences and in the choices they make every day. Our divisions seem to stretch farther and wider than we previously understood.
Social media can be used to collect valuable information about a company or politician’s followers. Information about the brands consumers prefer, media sources they read, social causes they support and the personality of the brands they follow can be used to create a mosaic of characteristics important to brand managers, political strategists, and any organization looking to build stronger relationships with their clients or customers.
Our research examined the Twitter followers of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and the sources of information and brands that their supporters follow: 648 brands followed by more than 19 million Trump and Clinton supporters collectively. By analyzing the President’s and former Secretary of State’s followers and those they follow, we were able to glean insight into the brand preferences of each politician’s followers, such as what news, beer and car brands they consume or are likely to choose.
The “Brand Universes” of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supports the widely-held beliefs about the profiles and demographics of the two candidates’ supporters. For example, President Trump’s Twitter followers had strong affinity with the alcoholic brands Budweiser, Coors, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark; sports brands and media such as Ping, the Golf Chanel and Fox Sports; financial and media brands such as SmartyPig, Mint, MarketWatch, Fox Business, and the Drudge Report. Secretary Clinton’s followers, on the other hand, showed strong attraction for brands that are often associated with women and millennials such as Gap, Maybelline, Cover Girl, and J. Crew and media channels that speak to liberal audiences such as The Atlantic, Vox, Aljazeera America and Ebony Magazine.
Figure 1: The percentages represent the proprtion of followers who follow the politican listed and the respective brands, but not the other politician
By combining these brand universes with consumer data from Young & Rubicam’s BrandAsset Valuator (BAV) model, we are able to unearth the personality characteristics of each politician’s followers by the brands they follow. The brands monitored by Donald Trump’s followers were characterized as: straightforward; down to earth; rugged; unstylish; and non-trendy. The brands tracked by Hillary Clinton’s followers were described as: intelligent; socially responsible; glamorous; not fun; and not energetic. Interestingly, these characteristics were commonly associated with the two politicians themselves.
The takeaway is stark: by using this data, if you tell us who you follow on social media, we can assess your political affiliation and who you are likely to vote for in the future. Indeed, President Trump’s electoral success has been partially attributed to his ability to harness the power of Twitter and tailor his rhetoric to reflect the values of his followers.
When 22 percent of the world’s total population uses Facebook, 88 percent of businesses use Twitter, and YouTube reaches more 18-to-49 year olds than any cable network in the U.S., analyzing these platforms becomes utterly fundamental to understanding the role that social media plays in reinforcing our perceptions of the political opposition.
The same social media source that allows Donald Trump to instantly reach his followers can be used to help us better understand how brand associations can unduly reinforce political bias and fuel the polarization of our nation.
Oded Netzer is a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School. Verena Schoenmueller is a postdoctoral fellow of marketing at Columbia Business School.