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Trump's Erratic Tweets Masked a Sophisticated Social Media Effort, ODU Marketing Researcher Says

By Brendan O'Hallarn

In conventional candidate terms, Donald Trump should have doomed his own campaign for president one incendiary tweet at a time.

Fired off at all hours and aimed at all manner of targets, Trump's 140-character posts on the social media website Twitter grabbed headlines repeatedly because of sheer shock value.

Looking underneath the attention-grabbing tweets, however, reveals a sophisticated social media campaign from the moment Trump and his small campaign team launched his long-shot bid for president. Girish Sreevatsan, a Ph.D. student in marketing in Old Dominion's Strome College of Business, said Trump's mastery of the medium is a big reason he won in November.

"His social media efforts had a little bit of everything," said Sreevatsan, a native of India who researches and teaches online marketing and consumer behavior. "There was pure populism - saying just what people wanted to hear. He was a compulsive contrarian, saying things other candidates would be hesitant to say. He was a bully at times. He used reality-show-style drama. And he was just good at branding strategies."

Sreevatsan said using phrases like "Crooked Hillary" was, at its very essence, an exercise in branding.

Significantly more deliberation went into Project Alamo, the social media campaign that played a large role in Trump's election.

"To those who are unfamiliar, it was the code name of a highly customized micro-targeted digital marketing campaign Trump's social media team carried out," Sreevatsan said. "This was mass customization. I would like to call it 'surgically targeted mass customization.'"

Sreevatsan leads social media campaigns for organizations with completely different goals than Donald Trump's election as president. He volunteers for nonprofits and participates local advocacy campaigns such as Norfolk Forward, which he co-founded.

However, despite diametrically opposed end goals, there are lessons any organization can learn from the way the Trump campaign, and Trump in particular, was able to make his message resonate so strongly (and differently, depending on the audience).

"By telling people how they will feel, Trump seems to prime them to feel that way," he said. "That means the 'half-life' of his tweets is much longer than his opponents', simply because his supporters do the work for him, keeping up the comments."

Sreevatsan said Brad Parscale, the man behind Project Alamo, amassed a large amount of data to support the effort. "This was aimed at winning the elections through the Electoral College victory, meaning efforts were spread accordingly across various states," he said.

That precision allowed Trump to win a solid majority of electoral votes despite losing the popular vote by about 3 million votes, Sreevatsan said.

In the future, public figures are likely to mimic Trump's approach. But without the support behind the face of the campaign, those efforts aren't likely to be met with success, Sreevatsan said.

"He does things in ways others don't, because it's not what normal people do, like tweeting at 3 a.m.," he said.

"He seems to understand how things will be blown out of proportion (spelling errors; contrarian viewpoints). This plays a double role by stirring up liberal circles while appealing to his core base. The former end up talking about it for a long time. But Trump seems to understand that his core base likes his utter disregard of grammar. He also understands that's how the core base talks, and therefore they find him more relatable."

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