02/04/2016 02:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Business Lessons from Donald Trump's Iowa Results


The surviving candidates and political media exited Iowa early Tuesday morning for New Hampshire and beyond, but businesses can learn from what happened to Donald Trump in the Iowa caucuses.

The Trump campaign offered "hoopla" that included customer marketing, branding and strategic advertising.

As impressive as "Trump Force One" and his organization appeared, The Donald lacked political campaign experience in the high-stakes Iowa contest. Most importantly, Mr. Trump was unable to build a ground game to back up his high polling numbers. Put simply, businessman Trump had moved outside his "circle of competence" compared with politicians Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

Ordinarily, a second place finish might seem good enough, but Trump had raised media expectations that he would have a huge win in Iowa. When the Trump campaign failed to meet or exceed expectations, the perception grew that he lost. Trump's habit for calling others losers created a unique context for the label to boomerang.

As I watched Iowa voters attend county caucus events, the late Tony Schwartz's description of politics as "a one day sale" rang true.


As we can see from colleague Michelle Thies' photographs from the Shelby County caucus in Harlan, Iowa, voters are motivated to stand outside in a line and spend hours in order to participate.

Trump's large Twitter following and steady social media use clearly activated some voters, yet data showed that Marco Rubio attracted the most first-time caucus-goers, including those deciding late in the process.

Trump, though, did something right in defeat. His concession speech was humble and brief. This may serve him well in future contests. In contrast, Cruz talked beyond the sale by going on and on. Likewise, Rubio was windier than needed.

I think we can identify a number of lessons from the Trump experience in Iowa that also translate to insights for everyday business people:

1. Social media are useful in raising awareness and engaging with customers, but this activity should not be confused with results in politics or business.
2. Media strategies are important, from organic social media campaigns to paid advertising, but these do more to reinforce existing perception instead of changing hearts, minds and action.
3. Hoopla generates media and public buzz, but it must be followed with a ground game that keeps a close eye on intended behavioral outcomes.
4. When activating a consumer, emotions are important. Ted Cruz had an ideological connection with his supporters, and they came out in record numbers. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio captured the imagination of future-oriented voters.
5. The results narrative is a function of prior expectations established by the seller. Do not over-sell your expected results, as this leads to disappointment.
6. The words you use to sell a candidate, product or service may come back to haunt you. Avoid placing others in a negative light - the label may boomerang.
7. Talk less. Listen more. Trump didn't need to attend the final Iowa debate to talk more, but his absence sent the wrong message to voters deciding on the eve of the caucuses. Listening in a sales process means being there and demonstrating attentiveness.
8. Personal branding and name recognition are important early in a sales process. Conversion of shoppers to customers, however, is a time-consuming process that happens by building trust.


In the end, business plans must include strategic mapping of the customer conversion process. Traditional and social media hoopla can be useful during early stages of communicating, but marketing ultimately must move beyond awareness and engagement to a resulting behavior.