The election—remember the 2020 US Presidential election? Our Election 2020 column examines our bi-annual balloting from the point of view of communications measurement.

Short answer: Earned media works, most candidates are not very efficient, and no one cares about efficiency. But your boss just might.

The long answer: The major takeaway from the first three months of the 2020 Presidential primary season for corporate communications folks is that paid media alone doesn’t work. Even the pundits and newspaper reporters credited earned media as the reason for Biden’s success.

There was a lot of discussion after former NY Mayor Bloomberg dropped out of the race after Super Tuesday, when he won only American Samoa. Even well-respected MSNBC newsman Brian Williams flunked the math test, repeating an erroneous tweet that claimed Bloomberg could have given every American $1 million for the $550 million he spent. The actual math works out to $1.53 per citizen. The Guardian has a practical, big-picture perspective on what good deeds Bloomberg’s bucks could have accomplished. Not surprisingly, the New York Post ran a much more colorful take on alternatives.

The reality is that neither paid nor earned worked by itself. Biden’s media success was shared and echoed endlessly on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. And, at the same time, no one really knows how many of Bloomberg’s votes were a result of his TV ads, his silly memes, or the free laptops and cell phones he gave out to his local campaign workers.

My guess is that this year’s candidates’ adventures aren’t much different from scenarios played out in corporate comms offices around the country. “Earned media might work,” says the marketing guys, “but you can’t control it, so let’s buy ads.” To which the CFO or the CCO responds, “Ads might work but do we really know what’s driving the leads?”

The biggest lesson for communications pros is how to calculate your value. Let’s assume that the goal of every candidate is getting votes, and therefore delegates. We did a quick calculation based on delegate counts as of March 11, 2020, and Wikipedia’s running vote total:

Looking at those numbers, if I (as a key target audience member and active voter in a early primary swing state) wanted a highly efficient candidate, I’d have voted for Sanders or Biden. (I actually voted for Warren, and I’m okay with her efficiency rating.) If you didn’t care that your candidate is a spendthrift, then you’d be happy with Steyer, who spent over $1000 per vote and received 0 delegates. Amy, Tulsi and Pete at least got something for their money. Bloomberg, not so much. ∞

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