How Biden’s Rebels Blew Up Trump’s Death Star

After Donald Trump’s then-digital honcho Brad Parscale described the outgoing president’s operation as a Death Star, the Biden campaign’s digital director, Rob Flaherty, posted a gif showing the moon’s space station’s ultimate fate.

On Monday, Biden’s ad agency, Bully Pulpit Interactive, hosted a seminar detailing the president-elect’s digital strategy to educate voters, expand its organic reach and deal with misinformation.

Here are a few highlights:

More was less

Biden’s team wasn’t inclined to mimic one of Trump’s digital ad strategies: developing multiple variations of ads for specific segments.

“There was a lot of pressure to do the millions of variations thing, but our theory was that we could do a lot with a lot less,” said Flaherty. He felt the Biden campaign could run a more efficient targeting program with less waste while raising more money.

“I can have one of those Pimp My Ride cars with a toaster oven in the back or a koi pond in the trunk, but if a normal Camry will get me to work faster, I’m going to do that,” he said.

Biden had to overcome Trump’s huge organic communications advantage

 There was no way Joe Biden could match Trump’s cultish following, nor could he recreate the president’s millions of frenzied followers across Facebook and Twitter.

So the Biden campaign, knowing early on it had to close Trump’s organic reach advantage, partnered to generate organic reach online.


Not surprisingly, one of its biggest tools was Facebook.

“We did a lot of experimentation around training Facebook on attitudinal shifts, pre-testing a lot of creative to get a sense of how and what audiences moved after exposure to creative,” Flaherty said.

Then the campaign used the Facebook’s algorithm to find look-alikes of people who were most persuaded by the Biden campaign’s content.

Further, trust in institutions – and political candidates – had degraded. So Biden’s camp couldn’t just do outreach directly. It needed to send messaging through trusted organizations.

Biden’s team used a network of left-leaning Facebook pages and gave them the resources to message and share sponsored content. “Overnight, we had more organic reach on Facebook through that network than the president had through his pages,” Flaherty said. “We spun that up in a manner of weeks.”

Sixty percent of Biden’s Facebook views came through that partner network, he added.

Biden used TikTok – just not officially

For security reasons, the Biden campaign didn’t have an official platform on TikTok – but it didn’t want to ignore the growing video portal either. As with Facebook, Biden’s team developed relationships, through a partner, with prominent TikTok communities to push out content.

“We worked with influencers, big and small, in targeted states to share messages about voting and the vice president,” Flaherty said.

In the end, TikTok was the Biden campaign’s second most important video platform – even though it didn’t have an official presence.

The Biden team invested 40% of its budget in list building and acquisition to catch up to Trump

As the general election neared, Joe Biden was flush with cash while Donald Trump had wasted what was once a sizable financial advantage.

But that was not an obvious conclusion back in March and April, when the pandemic forced a nationwide lockdown and curtailed traditional fundraising activities. No longer safe to shake hands and kiss the heads of babies, the Biden campaign had to rethink fundraising.

Would donors, for instance, be receptive to grassroots fundraising through Zoom?

Money was tight, Flaherty said, and it was at that point where Biden’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, made one of the riskiest bets: devoting 40% of the campaign’s entire budget to list building and acquisition – in order to catch up to Trump’s advantage.

“That is gutsy,” Flahery said. “And it absolutely paid off. As a percentage of our raise, the names it brought in were a huge amount of our digital revenue, and the value of us catching up on that list could not be overstated.”

The Biden campaign 'inoculated' voters against disinformation

Disinformation played a big part in 2016 and, possibly, had an even bigger presence in 2020. This time, however, the Democrats were better prepared.

For one, they knew the deluge of lies might seem like loose threads but, in the minds of voters, they actually added up to a single potent storyline: Would Biden be able to stand up to the leftist wing of the Democratic party?

But in identifying that specific narrative, the Biden campaign could counter with a single, simple message.

“Instead of chasing down and knocking down every ANTIFA rumor, we knew that the best defense was convincing people that the Joe Biden they did like, whose values they shared, would be the author of his own presidency,” said BPI partner Danny Franklin. “And when we reminded them of those values … and validated that through trusted endorsers, we could win the argument and defeat the attack.”

Biden’s team also zeroed in on which particular rumors to respond to and which to ignore by placing them in a quadrant.

Attacks that had high awareness and created the most negative perception about Biden, such as his age and fitness to run or that he was controlled by the radical left, were countered.

Biden’s campaign mostly ignored attacks that had high awareness but didn’t significantly detract from the perception of Biden (such as the Hunter Biden-Ukraine narrative), or that had low awareness and little negative impact (for example, QAnon).

To “inoculate” people against misinformation, the Biden campaign used surveys to figure out which voters were most susceptible. And it would use publications that weren’t necessarily friendly to the Democrats – surfacing, for instance the handful of Fox News articles that were positive toward Biden, and ensure that voters who were most likely to believe misinformation saw it.

In other words, the Biden campaign relayed its inoculation messages through sources voters found credible.

“We measured success in two different ways,” Franklin said. “First, through the polling, we saw the believability of disinformation declined over time … And because we were able to build profiles at the voter level, we were able to track back the impact of paid media response, and found that paid media persuaded about 200,000 voters in the battleground states."

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