Election campaigns of all kinds are awash in money, and the campaign for president swims in the biggest pool of all. More than $5 billion may be spent by presidential candidates and their supporters for the the 2016 race according to The Hill, which is double the tally for 2012.

Much of this money will be spent on salaries, wages and fees for the armies that work on campaigns — the people who drive vans, call you during dinner, schedule the bathroom stops, blow up balloons, write the robocall scripts, give policy advice, pick out the clothes, appear on the candidate’s behalf on the Sunday talk shows and so on.

And some of it is spent on expenses like jet fuel, meals, copy paper, cell phone bills, utility bills and yard signs.

But the biggest share of all that money will be spent on marketing, the bulk of that on t.v. ads. Kantar Media estimates that for all races up and down the ticket political ad spending on t.v. will total $4.4 billion for the 2016 election cycle, and that another $1 billion will be spent on online ads. And, like elsewhere in marketing, the campaigns are starting to use better retargeting and programmatic buying tools.

The real reason political spending grows is that it becomes less effective

I’m no expert in the specialized marketing that political campaigns use, but as an engaged citizen, it seems to me that most presidential campaign spending is targeted at a tiny percentage of people in a few select regions of the country. Our electoral college system creates 50 winner-take-all contests, the majority of which are not competitive. Which means most of us live in places where the presidential candidates won’t actually campaign or run any ads.

Instead this $5.4 billion will be used to:

  • secure and defend places where a candidate has a slight advantage;
  • try to steal a state where their opponent’s advantage might be slim enough to challenge;
  • and persuade as many undecided voters as possible in a few truly competitive states.

I can’t imagine a population of people more resistant to traditional interruption marketing tactics.

The small share of the electorate targeted by this spending are suspicious, fed up and ad weary. The fact that campaigns have to double their spending on this group every four years should tell the campaigns something. They’re steadily getting less bang for the buck from advertising that targets these voters.

Undecideds are the very definition of ad averse. If there is anyone who doesn’t want to be sold to, it must be these voters. They want to be dealt with straight up and with sincerity.

But the logic of today’s campaign strategy is to engage in all-out warfare to bombard these voters with as many ads as possible. Seven impressions doesn’t make a difference? How about eight? How about 800?

Presidential campaigns are working on the reasonable theory that it will take most of $2.5 billion to pull voters their way, and they don’t want to be on the side that said, “Ehh, $2.4 billion should do it.”

If it’s not working, maybe try something different

So we have a situation where the money creates diminishing returns and probably turns off more voters than it engages, undermining the long-term brand of the candidates and their parties. I can’t imagine a situation more perfectly suited to content marketing.

I define content marketing as:

A plan to grow and engage your customer base that is built around discovering what you can do for someone else, developing and delivering related content, and then measuring the results.

The whole point of being a political candidate, of course, is to discover what other people need done and to pledge to do it. There’s no time like the present, I say.

Content marketing is a way to start doing things for people now, to build trust in the brand and to attract the attention and engagement of voters. By building authenticity and goodwill, content marketing is a perfect tactic for politicians — the brands that probably have the most difficulty communicating authenticity in a way that is accepted and trusted.

Content marketing does this by asking for nothing in return and counting on the goodwill paying dividends over time — although it is important to measure the results you are getting and keep adjusting.

Best of all, content marketing forces a brand to focus more on the customer than on itself, which lowers the stakes and allows the candidate to be their best selves. It’s a space where they can stop begging for votes and just be real with people. They can stand on their core values and, in focusing on being helpful, bring those values to life. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate their values rather than their “messaging.”

How Content Marketing Could Help Elect the Next President

While the best content marketing often demonstrates thought leadership, it shouldn’t be a policy statement. That has its place elsewhere in a candidate’s materials, but not here. A political candidate should use content marketing to show they are expert on down-to-earth, everyday, practical issues.

This isn’t the place to tout a 5-point plan for the economy. It’s the place to say, “Here are some ways to help manage your household budget.”

How content marketing would work in a political campaign

Imagine a citizen who goes online looking for answers to a question or problem they’re having such as:

  • Selecting a retirement plan.
  • Selecting a preschool.
  • Hiring their first employee.
  • Finding an outpatient mental health program for a family member.
  • Figuring out a tax question.
  • Coping with grief.
  • Asking for a raise.
  • Understanding birth control coverage options.
  • Sponsoring an employee for a H-1B visa.
  • Talking to their children about how they interact with the police.
  • Understanding the best way to incorporate their small business.

Now, imagine that when a voter is researching one of these issues, Google’s search results suggest a site owned and operated by one of the political campaigns. When they click to site, the information they find there is truly helpful and doesn’t push the candidate’s agenda. (And definitely does not ask for a campaign donation!)

That’s going to make a powerful impression, and it will be all the more powerful because they initiated the contact rather than being interrupted with an ad. If they land on this site a few times over the course of a few months, then the visitor is steadily getting a good sense of that candidate’s world view and of what’s important to them.

There is some evidence that Google search result rankings already matter in elections. The Washington Post reports on an experiment from the National Academy of Sciences where undecided voters were showed rigged search engine results when they researched candidates. When people in the experiment were presented with results that gave a candidate the top link placement, they later indicated they were 20% more likely to vote for that candidate.

Content marketing is the Google-approved way to rank well in search engine results. The basic process is straightforward: understand what questions your target audience is trying to get answers to; publish content with answers that people trust more than any other site.

Of course, in practice, it can be fiercely competitive to execute on that simple process. But a small slice of $2.5 billion should be enough for a brand to compete in the SEO world.

Using some sophisticated marketing technology tools, the campaign can identify which visitors are ripe for a micro-conversion like signing up for an email newsletter and getting a little bit of a sell. In other words, content marketing can benefit the the existing digital marketing plan by creating a source of pre-qualified leads.

But even if a visitor never moves further down the funnel to being a qualified lead, an article that helps someone with their problem is going to be more effective than an ad impression.

Content marketing is owned media

The last major advantage content marketing has over advertising is that it holds its value.

A brand continues to own its content assets and benefit from them, whereas the value of an ad impression expires immediately after the ad airs. I think of it as the difference between paying the mortgage and paying the rent. A renter pays for a month of shelter and then has nothing to show for it. They have to start the process over again every month. A homeowner has a growing account of equity at the end of each month.

How Content Marketing Could Help Elect the Next President

Similarly, once a content asset is created and live, after it makes its first impression, it can still be circulated or even improved on and re-circulated. It builds value over time. That’s good for anyone taking a long-term view — the political parties, the victor who will have to govern and any losing candidate planning to continue in politics.

Win or lose, content marketing leaves behind something valuable that a candidate can be proud of.

The basic outline of a content marketing strategy

A typical content marketing strategy is going to organize around these pieces:

  • Goal for the content marketing project. For example, the goal may be to emphasize a certain image or to engage a certain demographic. A brand may have multiple projects and goals.
  • Audience. Demographic insights and research about how the audience behaves online around their interests.
  • Channels. A project should understand what channels the audience moves through and make sure the brand can be discovered there. Channels might include Google search (leading to your website), Pinterest, Twitter, chat rooms, etc.
  • Content ideation. Develop an editorial calendar. This will be supported by research about what your audience is searching for online.
  • Content development. Put a bunch of freelance creatives to work delivering on the editorial calendar.
  • Distribution and promotion. Using the best up-to-date tools and tactics to optimize how the content gets in front of people.
  • Analysis. Track performance metrics, learn and adjust.

Some strategy ideas

Now let’s see what this idea might look like in practice.

Cards on the table: I’m on the left myself and I generally support the candidate on that side with the best chance of winning. So I’m going to take the liberty of developing illustrations for the Hillary Clinton for President campaign. But I hope the reader can see that the same idea can apply across the political spectrum and up and down the national, state and local ticket. A candidate for dog catcher can apply the same principles if they optimize their site for local search.

So, let’s imagine Clinton’s campaign manager carved off a couple million dollars and called me up to say they were sending a check.

I would probably recommend they build original publications outside her her main site. A blog on her primary site, even if it removed the donate now buttons and the popups demanding my contact information, would be too clearly affiliated with politicking. I recommend letting visitors make that connection themselves and at their own pace. We would want to create some space where they can get information without having to worry what agenda is behind it.

If you look at Clinton’s main site — and if you battle through all the CTA’s — you’ll see it is arranged around four campaign themes:

  • Building an economy for tomorrow
  • Strengthening America’s families
  • Defending America and our core values
  • Revitalizing our democracy

My first thought was that her campaign could have four media properties under one umbrella which would publish articles on each of those themes. But I think the later two themes don’t lend themselves to the kinds of hands-on and practical advice material I’m recommending. Those would make excellent subjects for thought-leadership publications with lots of think pieces. But getting that right in a way that ultimately supports the campaign would be difficult on this short timeline.

Instead, to start with, I envision a single publication with a message of empowerment that primarily touches on those first two campaign themes. It would be full of “actions you can take yourself” to improve your own economic situation and strengthen your own family. The content would include lots of self-help articles, explainers on complex issues and a mix of inspiring profiles and feel-good stories.

For example, articles that will ultimately support the “Building the economy for tomorrow” and “Strengthening America’s families” messages might include:

  • A Primer on Student Loan Debt Forgiveness Programs
  • Making Sense of the FAFSA
  • A Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Private Student Loan Market
  • Preparing for Your Citizenship Exam
  • How to Find an Excellent Daycare Provider
  • A State-by-State Guide to DayCare Subsidies You May Qualify For
  • Helping Your Parents Understand Their Prescription Benefits Plan
  • What to Look For In a Health Care Savings Account
  • What the New Social Security Rules Mean for You
  • The Overlooked Community Bank and How It Can Help Your Small Business Grow
  • Top Tips For Reducing Your Tax Preparation Bill
  • Your First Export Dollar – How Your Small Business Can Make the Leap to Selling Abroad
  • Do You Have a Case? A Quick Guide to the Paycheck Fairness Act
  • Negotiation Tips For Parents – How to Talk With Your Boss About Your Family’s Schedule

These are all subjects that Clinton’s site has policy positions on, and these are all in alignment with the brand image she’s trying to project of supporting the economy and supporting families. Naturally, this publication should tread very carefully about hyping Clinton or featuring her. A “brought to you by” message will be enough for initial visitors to the site.

Content marketing thrives on consistency and on being as in-depth and authoritative as possible. It typically takes at least a few months to start showing results, so this site should probably have a pretty aggressive publication schedule, especially since it has a very broad range of topics it is covering. I would start with two strong anchor pieces each day and a mix of 10 shorter, lighter and newsier pieces each day.

Turning all this content into marketing

So how is it going to bring in supporters and votes, especially from the undecided voters who are fed up with advertising? By very gradually connecting this helpful content with the point that Clinton has some big picture policy plans related to these topics.

Ultimately, you want to make an association in the voter’s mind between solutions to their problems and the candidate. When the time is right, you direct their attention to the candidate’s message — in a way that is organic and relevant to their needs rather than in a way that interrupts their dinner.

Brands use content marketing to create opportunities for customers to come to them rather than the other way around. It’s slower, but it creates a more lasting relationship.

This kind of marketing isn’t all touchy-feely, though. Smart projects use marketing software to track visitors so that after a certain number of visits they are introduced to a soft sell. For example, in this case, a repeat visitor might be directed to a landing page with a message from Clinton saying, “I started this site because I wanted to use my campaign as an opportunity to help people. I really care about these issues, and if you do, too, you may want to look at how I plan to do that as President.”

In other words, don’t force their attention over to the main site where they start getting bombarded with requests. Invite them to visit.

Anyone who clicks on that invitation is a qualified lead. From there, all the other best practices of digital marketing come into play, including split testing and tracking. For example, those qualified leads should start to get more amplified marketing messages using tools like:

  • a drip email campaign.
  • targeted internet advertising.
  • content sequencing.
  • a summary of the candidate’s policy statements.

Creating real connections with voters

Brands of all kinds need to figure out new ways of connecting with customers as traditional interruption marketing tactics continue to lose their effectiveness. Content marketing is on the rise because it’s a way to get real with customers — to show them what a company knows and cares about but in a way that is 100% focused on the customer’s needs instead of the company’s need to sell itself.

Creating a real connection is the basic challenge of election campaigns, right? The overwhelming need to secure votes puts candidates in the position of staying “on message” and postponing the day when they actually do any good for people. So voters just hear promises, which they get increasingly cynical about.

That’s how we start saying that candidates are “just politicians” and find it increasingly difficult to see that politicians are motivated to serve. We rarely actually see the service, so we only know the candidates in terms of their electioneering.

Content marketing is a way for candidates to break out of that destructive cycle. I’m not saying they shouldn’t still spend billions launching a hurricane of noisy advertising. But if they want to create a quiet honest space where they can have real connections with voters, then they should try the kind of marketing that is about doing good for others.