Vladimir Putin

396: What the Mueller Indictments Can Teach Us Auction Marketers

This past weekend, my social streams filled with news and opinion stories regarding Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s big revelation. He indicted more than a dozen Russian individuals and organizations for illegally interfering with the campaigns of U.S. presidential candidates.

As a marketing professional, several things stood out to me in the stories I read.

• Facebook was referenced 41 times in the indictment documentation, compared to other social platforms like Twitter and YouTube, which maxed out at 12 mentions. 1

• The primary Russian culprit spent only $46,000 on Facebook during the campaign, compared to the $81 million spent by the two political candidates and the millions more spent by political action committees on their behalf. 2

• Most of the Russian ad spend on Facebook occurred after the 2016 presidential election. 3

• 10 million people saw paid ads, but up to 150 million people saw fictional content from fake accounts. 1

• Organic reach led to 340 million cumulative shares but only 20 million original post interactions.  1

• The propaganda work started roughly two years before the campaign started—just to learn targeting information for when the campaign would start—before the Russians even knew who the candidates would be. 1

These foreign actors, whether treasonous colluders or just anti-American antagonists, got fantastic organic results and incredibly efficient paid reach. One of my Virginia senators, Mark Warner, noted this in a public hearing: “If you look back at the results, it’s a pretty good return on investment.” 4 They accomplished this by spending years trying to understand their target audience. Then they leveraged advanced tools to exploit those revealed psychographics.

Social Media Options

My clients and I spend far more per year on Facebook than these indicted advertisers did. So, I’m astonished by their results. We couldn’t do anything that advanced, if we tried, though. The Russian operatives were spending $1.25 million per month cumulatively in the research, development, and eventual paid advertising for the fake news entities. 5 That goes beyond just about any auction company’s capabilities.

So, what practical insight can we in the auction industry draw from the Russian election scandal?

I’ll answer that in a minute. First, can I take you back to the Cold War?

Half our action movies were about communist operatives or former communists turned independent villains. In real life, our military complex was built during a seismic contest with the U.S.S.R. We engaged in proxy wars as far away as Vietnam and as close as Cuba. As walls came down, elections were held, and unused armadas sank into Arctic Circle harbors, we Americans claimed victory over the reds.

Some chalked it up to our culture being our greatest export. Others attributed the historic fall to our freedom blasting a clarion call behind the iron curtain. Yet others pointed to our bigger, better, more advanced military as the intimidation that forced the issue. After all, isn’t that how wars had been won since the beginning of time? Either you killed your enemies with your numbers or new technology, or you intimidated them into surrender (and often slavery). No matter what you think of war and no matter how you think we did it, most historians will probably consider America the winner of the Cold War from a traditional military perspective.

With our military supremacy established, our open culture and personal freedoms have since attracted terrorists to attack us physically and our temporarily-vanquished foes to attack us digitally. Sony can well attest that cyber targets have gone beyond government entities. Whether we saw it coming or not, the next battlefield has become culture itself.

Blind Justice

Someone must have asked insidious but brilliant questions.

What if a nation could exploit another country’s democracy, another state’s corruption?

What if a foreign entity could divide us with an exacerbated political war?

What if they could pour gasoline on the fires between our moral relativists and our fundamentalists, between our sports fans and our professional athletes, between our recent immigrants and the children of past immigrants?

What if they could make our diversity a liability instead of a strength?

What if they could harness our ubiquitous entitlement and take advantage of our fat smugness?

What if someone could move the theater, weapons, and combatants of war from trained military to unsuspecting citizens and our mass & social media?

What if they knew our elections were, “may the best marketing team win,” and could then beat one or both parties at their own game?

The Russians studied their target culture and adapted their strategies to it.

They saw the inherent shifts and movements that coincided with the immutable realities of our humanness, our selfishness—our brokenness. They unearthed the thing behind the thing.

This is also why Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google became behemoths. They saw past the obvious changes in retail, devices, online communication, and search. They read the culture and developed technology around intrinsic needs and wants—before we even knew we needed or wanted it. They understood our addiction to dopamine and the new ways we “keep up with the Joneses.”

Statue of Liberty

I’m seeing that now in the auction industry (including too often in the mirror).

The difference between the haves and have nots isn’t bid calling or even bidding platforms. It’s bigger than advertising, too. The growing chasm is between those who are reading culture and aligning their values and services around the rhythms and reasoning of the marketplace. The game-changing companies are those who don’t try to improve their systems as much as those who adapt their whole approach to business to the unchangeable realities of a melting pot of 300 million consumers. They’re purging jargon and changing sale terms. They’re learning their customers, segmenting their audiences, and customizing their messages. They’re starting from the customer’s needs or wants and working backwards to their auction rather than the other way around.

The auctioneers who look to use Cold War-era mindsets with post-9/11 media will be left in the shock known by many Americans 15 months ago. They, too, will wonder how they were undone, how they weren’t understood, how they couldn’t outsell the competition.

On the flip side, the first ones to see what the actual game is will be the only ones who can win it.

Stock images purchased from iStockPhoto.com

1What Trump Still Gets Wrong About How Russia Played Facebook” by Louise Matsakis, February 17, 2018.

2Trump and Clinton spent $81M on US election Facebook ads, Russian agency $46K” by Josh Constantine, November 1, 2017.

3Facebook Vice President of Ads Slams ‘Main Media Narrative’ of Russian Interference” by Timothy Meads, February 17, 2018.

4Why Russia’s Facebook ad campaign wasn’t such a success” by Patrick Ruffinia, November 3, 2017.

5A Russian troll factory had a $1.25 million monthly budget to interfere in the 2016 US election” by Brennan Weiss, February 16, 2018.

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