Yesterday we sat down with Adam Sharp, Former Head of News, Government, and Elections at Twitter and now Founder of Sharp Things LLC.
This month, you joined us at Digital Marketing Transformation Assembly as our keynote speaker. What were your key takeaways from the event?
AS: The biggest takeaway for me was that on the surface it appeared that everyone came from different industries, the issues faced were remarkably consistent. I’m from news and politics. I sat next to a gentleman from Lowes. There were chocolate, sports and several other spaces in the room as well. While it would seem dramatically diverse, it was amazing to see from the conversations how much overlap there is and how the marketers in the room were often dealing with the same challenges. Seeing that exchange of ideas and how innovation in different spaces benefits others was really encouraging.
What do you see as the benefits for C-Level executives attending an event like ours?
AS: Following up on the last question, the main benefit is getting out of your own box a bit! When you attend an event like this, you discover that the issues you face and the problems you are trying to solve are not that different from CMOs and CDOs from other businesses, and because they’ve come from a different environment, they may have come up with a different approach or solution.
Coming together to share ideas and drive innovations across industries is the number one reason to attend.
You speak at multiple events, what stood out to you about the Digital Marketing Transformation Assembly and encouraged you to attend as the Keynote Speaker?
AS: First (and I’m only being a little facetious), the pitch from the great Millennium Alliance team! My answers to the first two questions reflect the original promise from the team. Part of me was thinking, “it’s just the pitch.” But then I thought “it’s in Florida, and it’s winter, so sounds good.” I arrived and realized it lived up to everything I was told, which was very exciting for me.
I had been concerned about whether the political narrative would resonate with the room, but with the help of the Millennium Alliance team to align to the agenda, the audience feedback suggests it certainly did! Coming from other events, I didn’t expect to come away feeling as strongly as I do in my answers to the first two questions regarding the event’s value. I was very positively surprised.
Second, while I did not get to attend many workshops, from what I saw of the agenda and from talking to other attendees, I was impressed by the efficiency of the program. It can be very difficult to convene this level of executive leadership, anywhere, without making it a 24-hour, in-and-out program. But then the challenge becomes how to make such a short opportunity pay off as a productive use of executives’ time and travel. Finding that right balance is tough. Millennium Alliance delivered.
Back in 2014, in an interview with ABC News, you discussed how Twitter has marked a return to ‘retail politics’. Trump’s surprise election heralded what some have called a win for “new media”. How has the role of social media in politics changed over recent years? And how do you predict it will continue to shape politics in the future?
AS: This theme of ‘retail politics’ was echoed in my remarks at the assembly. That core line, from the potential of it in 2008 to the resolution in 2016, is pretty directly connected. As with any new technology or industry or product, the biggest shift has been maturity.
If we look at the timeline of the last presidential elections, 2008 was the first where Twitter was an entity, having been founded in 2006. Some reporters used it. The campaigns did a little, the candidates did not. Obama didn’t send his first tweet until election night, to say thank you to voters. Coming out of the 2010 midterms that followed, fewer than one-fifth of members of congress were on Twitter. By the 2012 election two years later, more than 99% of them were, and both presidential campaigns had significant investments in the platform.
We had witnessed a shift from insider baseball, to the mainstream political class of voters, candidates, and journalists alike using Twitter to connect. That said, in most campaigns, it was still an add-on to existing digital infrastructure. The candidates at the presidential level were not tweeting themselves. Occasionally Obama would, and Romney used the account mainly for fundraising, not persuasion and conversation.
The 2016 candidate had his device in his hand, allowing for direct 1-on-1 retail connection.
2008 was the year for early adopter experimentation. 2010 we saw it move into the mainstream but it remained wholesale in its use. Finally, 2016 saw the delivery of “retail politics” direct from candidates to constituents.
Over your career, you’ve worked with many politicians, teaching them how to use twitter and offering advice on social media. In the run-up to the UK’s general election in 2015, your advice to politicians was to ‘act like humans’. Politicians are now daily social users. Does this advice still stand? How can they maintain a level of authenticity?
AS: Well, I think the advice remains good advice for any politician, whether talking about social media or anything else. In 2016, the premium that the electorate held on authenticity was stronger than ever. Part of this has roots in trends from retail and commerce. Even the biggest corporation can now be the bartender who always remembers your drink. Think Amazon and their tailored experiences. Netflix is another example.
Users expect to have more intimate connections to a brand, let alone an individual. In the individual environment, it has an even higher premium. They want to be engaging with another human being. Where voters gave a lot of latitude to Trump, and not to Clinton, was due to a sense of authentic engagement with the candidate. They favored the authentic approach the well-packaged marketing campaign, which would have been a textbook success in any previous cycle.
Some examples of this pattern that I spoke about in my remarks at the assembly were members of U.S. Senate. Chuck Grassley, the 83-year-old Republican Senator from Iowa, tweets himself, makes accidental jokes, misspells, and says odd things about the History Channel. Yet, when aides asked a focus group about the bad spelling and whether it bothered constituents, they were told: “that’s how we know it’s Chuck!” This example also demonstrates that willingness to accept mistakes when voters know they are coming from the politician personally. They would not so easily forgive if the account were managed by a staffer or digital marketing firm.
Speaking of authenticity, traditional news outlets seem to be in constant battle with the current US political administration over their credibility. With ‘fake news’ seemingly everywhere, those who have historically turned to traditional media for information are looking elsewhere. What impact is this having on the relationship between politics and news outlets?
AS: One thing that Trump has in common with every one of the 44 presidents that preceded him, is that at one point or another they have all felt that the press was out to get them. Historically, the White House has never felt that the media has 100% reflected their agenda and how it should be portrayed to the people. This has heightened since Watergate. The increase in fake news and conversations about it certainly changes the dynamic. I think that’s probably to the advantage and disadvantage of policy makers at the same time.
The advantage is that politicians can go and say that they’ve been misrepresented and there is a greater public acceptance that it’s “the media’s fault.” It adds more weight to the politician’s argument. The disadvantage is the impact of undermining public faith in all institutions — government and news alike. Rather than picking a side, this dynamic risks voters trusting no one. Both outcomes are fundamentally problematic to democracy.
The response to this is that voters are seeking out diversity in information sources. Social media makes this a lot easier. Not long ago, access to Washington news was limited to the delivery route of trucks. Now, you can connect to a journalist or a media outlet directly, from anywhere in the world, and build your own front page on Twitter or Facebook.
Diversity can positively affect fake news, as it brings perspective and confirmation. It does, however, risk people creating their own bubbles and only going to those sources that give them the news they “like.”
Technology is having an impact on every industry. Digital transformation is no longer limited to business, government and social organizations are jumping on the bandwagon. What trends are you keeping an eye on? What technology will disrupt politics next?
AS: I don’t think we have fully completed the mobile transformation yet, at least not in politics. That trend tends to be very generational. At this point, candidates and campaigns face a challenge in that older voters, those who more reliably turn out, have not yet made the complete move to mobile. Landline, direct mail and other traditional forms of persuasion are still the most effective methods to reach these voters. The next generations, gen x and certainly millennials, have cut the cord must more demonstrably and use mobile as their principal platform.
Campaigns are still struggling with how to reach voters through these mobile platforms. It is certainly top of mind for campaigners, but politics has not moved as fast as other industries, as the core customer — the reliable voter — is still often the older cohort. They are still heavily invested in serving this slice of the electorate, which is limiting. Politics doesn’t have the same flexibility that more consumer-oriented brands have. These brands can opt to say, “our key demographic is 18-24, so we’ll put all their resources there.” If they lose some of the older demographic – so be it. In politics, there isn’t always that same flexibility to prioritize.
You recently founded Sharp Things LLC, a strategic consulting and project management firm. What does the future hold for Adam Sharp?
AS: The future holds a natural iteration of the past. When you look at my career, I’ve spent more than 20 years carving out a distinct niche at the intersection of news, politics, and technology. Looking to the months and years ahead, my focus will be to continue looking at this overlap – it has become far clearer with every passing day and every passing election. Focus will be on working with clients that are affected by this intersection, and to build successful businesses and strategies within it.
ABOUT ADAM SHARP
Called “the human embodiment of Twitter” by the New York Times, Adam Sharp has forged a distinctive career of more than twenty years at the intersection of politics, journalism, and technology.
As Head of News, Government, and Elections at Twitter, Sharp led a team driving creative use of the platform by journalists, government officials, and political campaigns around the world. He was the longest-serving member of Twitter’s global media partnerships team and its most visible broadcast spokesperson.
Sharp joined Twitter in 2010 as the company’s first hire in Washington, DC, after previous roles at NBC News, the U.S. Senate, and C-SPAN. After the 9/11 attacks, he produced and shot documentary video at “Ground Zero” for the City of New York and went on to work on projects for the U.S. Department of Labor and other clients of Alan Weiss Productions. Sharp is Vice President of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation, a National Press Foundation board member, a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former President of the bipartisan U.S. Senate Press Secretaries Association. He lives in his childhood hometown of Stamford, CT, with his wife and young daughter.