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How Russia did it

22 April 2018

It really doesn’t matter if an organization is selling a product or selling a service. It doesn’t matter if that product or service is of the highest quality. And it doesn’t even matter if the individuals behind the development of the product or service are brilliant – because it all comes down to marketing.

All organizations large and small are investing in strategic marketing campaigns to reach as many interested parties as humanly possible. And, for those of us who have been in marketing for what seems like forever, we think we know a thing or two about effectively reaching our audience, expertly conveying our message, and successfully gaining our desired results.

But the playing field on which we are all competing has changed over the years. Cyberspace is becoming the dominant playground, and the new advertising platforms are Facebook, YouTube, Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter just to name a few top dogs.

Want to take a closer look? Grab all tables in Google Sheets!

Are we still competing on a level playing field? Are we all aware of our advertising options as well as our limitations? And are we all reading from the same rule book and following the same rules?

If you ask any successful marketer what the top marketing strategies are and what skills one has to have in his toolbox in order to run successful ad campaigns, the answer would likely be:

  • Know your audience
  • Cleverly articulate your message
  • Effectively use social media platforms

We all know this. We all play within the guidelines that are clearly outlined on all of the social media platforms, and we all assume we are playing in a fair, albeit competitive playground. We may be selling different products and services, but we are all united in one simple way – we are all trying to please our audience, gain loyalty, and strengthen our business. But what happens when the playing field becomes unleveled?

What happens when certain players decide to shake things up a bit, twist those rules – or at the very least, deliberately misinterpret the rules and regulations that have been carefully put in place to keep consumers and marketers alike, feeling safe and secure? Well, what happens quite simply, is that the rules will change, and the playing field will need to be redefined – but the game must go on.

International marketing is about influencing foreign audiences, and some would argue that the Kremlin-linked operatives succeeded on many fronts.

We are talking of course, about recent Russian government covert operations that didn’t play by the rules. The intent was not to please audiences and it certainly wasn’t to keep the general public feeling safe and secure. The intent was to meddle in the 2016 US federal election, cause further controversy over the American gun laws, and deepen the divide regarding the NFL protest over civil rights.

One thing is for sure however. The Russian government operatives involved in these campaigns did do their homework. They familiarized themselves with the most distressing American pain points, they knew the controversial issues, they targeted specific groups, they cleverly articulated their messages, and they effectively used social media platforms. In essence, they beat us at our own marketing game. International marketing is about influencing foreign audiences, and some would argue that the Kremlin-linked operatives succeeded on many fronts.

They succeeded in causing national outrage. They succeeded in creating even further divisions among American citizens. They succeeded in planting the notion that the very foundation of American democracy can be toyed with, and they succeeded in spreading misinformation far and wide. But we aren’t here to start another political debate, and we aren’t here to take sides. We are shamelessly here to learn as much as we can about their successful social media campaign and to take from them, as much as we can in order to be on top of our social media campaigns.

So, how did the Russian government operatives do it? How were they so successful in infiltrating the United States with their propaganda?

We hear it every day in the cafés, by the watercoolers at work, and in our neighborhoods –

How did the Russians do it? How were they so successful in infiltrating the United States with their propaganda? They don’t even have a full understanding of what or who they are targeting! How did this happen?

One answer – savvy. But we must first point out that it wasn’t the “Russians.” That assumes the entire country was in on it, and that would be absurd. No, these were skilled Russian operatives who have been linked to the Kremlin. And even though Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to deny that his government had anything to do with US election interference, the evidence seems undeniable.

Phew! Ok, now that we’ve cleared up any identity confusion, this is how they did it. For starters, they used the globally-reaching power of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to create very clever videos. On Twitter, Russian AI bots were programmed to direct tweets at users with a significant following and at users who demonstrated a lot of influence. Group pages on Facebook and private rooms on Twitter were infiltrated with propaganda messaging.

Yes. They did their homework and their bots definitely worked their magic. We are not championing these efforts by any means, but from a strictly social media campaign perspective, we have to give credit where credit is due, and let’s face it, their work is very impressive. So, just what can we learn about the power of bots to effectively engage audiences and grow our businesses?

 The power of AI bots in social media

American marketers are also using bots, but mostly service bots that help consumers transact with various businesses, order meals, and even book flights. Facebook’s Messenger uses chatbots that mainly focus on ecommerce, but marketers are beginning to dabble in subscription bots and even discovery-driven bots to reach more audiences and create more interactive experiences.

AI bots can improve flexibility, expedite data retrieval, and even improve the customer’s overall experience with your product or service. Social media bots now have the capability of effectively interacting with humans and answering a predetermined set of questions. Social media bots can even deliver targeted content and anticipate user reactions to a certain extent.

If used ethically and responsibly, bots can be a very effective advertising tool.

Ok, so Russian operatives mastered the bots, but what else did they do to successfully launch social media campaigns?

A very select group of Russian individuals did everything that any experienced marketer would tell you to do when it comes to launching successful social media campaigns. But they went a lot further. You see, it isn’t just about knowing your audience and effectively targeting them. It isn’t just about a cleverly scribed message, and it isn’t just about social media platform expertise or bot brilliance.

Perhaps if we asked the Russian individuals who were behind these covert operations what they believe constitutes a successful social media campaign, they might have delved a lot deeper than the average experienced marketer. They might have emphasized the need to:

  • Stir that emotional pot
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat
  • Amplify, amplify, amplify
  • Perfectly time every message

We aren’t here to ruffle political feathers. We really aren’t. We’re just here to figure out how these skilled Russian operatives were so successful, and we want to learn how we can benefit from their success in our own social media campaigns. And what better way to learn than from the pros themselves?

1. Stir that emotional pot

Ok, so you feel that you are effectively using social media campaigns. You have read up on all of the different types of ads that each platform offers, you have compared the prices to the possible ROI, and you have carefully crafted your ads and launched your campaigns. But are you giving enough thought to call-to-action words and phrases that literally act as emotional powerhouses, prompting consumers to take action?

The Russian hackers did. With the use of Facebook in particular, Russian operatives zeroed in on American citizens particularly concerned with civil rights violations and police brutality. They created a Facebook group called “Blacktivist” to mirror the work of Black Lives Matter, and they went right to the heart of the matter.

They targeted people’s emotions, stirred up discord, and fueled the fire. The Twitter account, “@TEN_GOP” assumed to be a Russian campaign, posed as the unofficial account of the Tennessee Republican Party. The account pushed countless fake news stories about Floridian voter fraud to create hostility and fire up emotions.

The point is, the Russian operatives who worked behind every single one of these campaigns knew exactly who they were targeting and what the issues were, and then they poured salt into emotional wounds. And it worked, at least for a while. Facebook has now had to hand over to congress, details on some 3,000 Russian ads worth approximately $100,000 that emotionally impacted on countless Americans.

2. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

So, you want people to buy into your advertisement – literally. Whether your ads are as honest as the day is long or they tend to stretch the truth, repeating your message seems to be the trick.

You only use 10 percent of your brain, and lightning never strikes the same place twice.

We’ve all heard these claims, and we’ve likely all repeated them, but nope. They aren’t true. Science has proven that the average human brain is pretty gosh darn active. In fact, brain scans have revealed that during the course of any given day, up to 100 percent of your brain is performing one task or another. And lightning? It actually tends to repeatedly strike the same place. In fact, tall structures and trees are at risk for multiple lightning strikes during electrical storms. But the facts aren’t important just like the quality of your product or service isn’t really important. What’s important is repetition. We get into our audience’s head, we get into their mind palace, and like vegetables in a garden, the message gets planted and blossoms.

The “Got milk?” campaign ran for over 20 years, and Nike’s “Just do it” ran for over 26 years

History has proven that repeated messages are more effective. Consumers not only get used to hearing the message, but they begin to identify with it. It becomes familiar and sometimes even comforting. How often do you catch yourself singing a tune from a childhood commercial or a beloved television series?

If you grew up in the 80s, you will in all likelihood recall, “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is!”, and who could forget, “the nighttime, sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching head, fever so you can rest medicine”? These messages were effective because they were repeated and long-lasting. The “Got milk?” campaign ran for over 20 years, and Nike’s “Just do it” ran for over 26 years.

How Russian operatives did-Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Marketers these days however, have forgotten the power of repetition. We rely on more, more, more! We want one message on this social media platform and another over there, and then we create new ads before we give the previous ones a chance. Part of the problem of course, is that we get immediate feedback now on how our ads are doing and if they are getting noticed. We instantly see our bounce rates and can evaluate our impressions versus our conversions. But the Russian operatives had patience and they remembered to repeat – and retweet.

Those who were behind the 2016 US federal election meddling retweeted Donald Trump’s tweets nearly 500,000 times in the weeks leading up to the election. Nearly 2 million tweets were repeated between the months of September and November of 2016.

Have you abandoned too many social media campaigns before they had a chance to show promise? Should you revisit some of your ads and consider repeating a message that just might gain traction over time? Most platforms allow you to set up hourly, daily, weekly, or even monthly repeat options, so depending on your budget, this might be well worth the investment.

3. Amplify, Amplify, Amplify

Repetition is great, but let’s not forget about amplification. When marketers succeed at getting their message promoted through the shares of other people – especially consumers – their brand, products, and services stand to reach significantly more traffic. To shamelessly plug another ad from years ago, here is Heather Locklear promoting Faberge Organic Shampoo

 “I told two friends about it, and they told two friends. And so on, and so on, and so on.”

Heather is talking of course, about the power of amplification but it is no longer the 1980s. Nowadays when a message is picked up and shared on various social media platforms, the outreach can be mind boggling. A recent study by the University of California examined the re-sharing of Twitter posts that were created by Russian troll accounts in an effort to influence the 2016 US federal election. The University collected over 43 million election-related Twitter posts that were re-shared by approximately 5.7 million individual Twitter users.

The research reported that users who identified as conservatives retweeted these propaganda messages 31 times more often than did their liberal counterparts and produced 36 times more tweets. Now that’s a pretty striking example of not only knowing your targeted audience, using their pain points to your advantage, and mastering social media platforms, but it exemplifies amplification expertise.

What are you doing to encourage your followers to share your messages? Emotional power words, call-to-action terminology, and knowing what makes your target audience spark are keys to social amplification.

4. Perfectly Time Every Message

43 million election-related posts were shared on Twitter between September 16th and October 21st, 2016

Hand in hand with repetition is knowing how to perfectly time your message. The 2016 US federal election was held November 8th, 2016. According to that same study by the United of California, those 43 million election-related posts were shared on Twitter between September 16th and October 21st, 2016 – probably not a coincidence.

It is also believed that the Russian operatives were running their operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They ran on shifts and ran right through the night, knowing that the United States has six different time zones that they wanted to strategically target.

We’ve all heard the saying that timing is everything, and it is. Creating an ad schedule for your social media campaigns is well worth the time and effort. If a landscaping company wishes to promote a sale on paving stones for instance, but advertises right around the winter holiday season, chances are the promotion won’t attract a lot of interest, but if the company times its campaign to launch just before the beginning of the spring cleaning season, interest could run sky high.

Set an ad schedule, determine the optimal time to run your ads, and analyze your campaign’s data

The timing of your ad campaigns also ties in directly to knowing who you are attempting to target and where that audience resides. Are they in your time zone? Are they overseas? Have you paid attention to when they are most likely to be on social media platforms and most likely to purchase? How well do you know your customers and your business? Have you done any research on when your business is the most profitable?

Oftentimes, you will find that certain hours and even certain days out-perform others. If you are able to determine this, you would be in prime position to maximize conversions while minimizing cost. Research has suggested for instance, that ecommerce retailers attract the most business on Mondays and the least business throughout the weekend. There is also a phenomenon known as the “paycheck effect” in which consumer spending seems to increase during the beginning and middle of each month.

If you are targeting consumers strictly within the United States, you might wish to consider where the majority of your potential consumers reside. According to Dan Zarrella, an award-winning social media scientist, 50 percent of the American population lives in the Eastern time zone, and the Eastern and Central time zones together, account for 80 percent of the country’s population.

Want to take a closer look? Grab all tables in Google Sheets!

If your business caters to an international market however, you need to do a little more work. Pay particular attention to each region’s time zones, what days and times people are most likely to be online and engaged, what demographic you are serving, and what social media platforms are the most popular. Without doing your homework, your well-crafted ads and spectacular products and services can literally be lost in cyberspace.  

Repeat your message, find creative ways to ensure your message gets amplified, and for goodness sake, make sure your timing is spot on.

In the end, the Russian government operatives really didn’t do anything too over the top. They basically employed the skills anyone could use from any social media campaign 101 class. They used the same social media resources available to us, but they took it to the extreme. Again, we are far from championing their efforts, but we are here to learn, and what better way to learn than closely dissecting just what it is they did?

So, when you are planning your next social media campaign, think about everything you already know and then up the ante

  • Hit the audience where it hurts or pleases them the most
  • Repeat your message
  • Find creative ways to ensure that message gets amplified

And for goodness sake, make sure your timing is spot on.

Thanks for reading!

 

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