The 2024 US presidential election is several months away, but social media is already politically charged. According to Sprout Social Listening data, from January 1 to March 6, 2024 there were almost 7.6 million conversations about the presidential election which garnered almost 45 million engagements and more than 103 billion impressions.

A screenshot of a Sprout Social Listening Topic Summary. In the dashboard, you can see the total volume and engagements, potential impressions, unique authors and sentiment of a Listening query about the US presidential election.

Of these conversations, less than half were positive. A proof point that illustrates what many social marketers already know: Presidential elections make social media a hard place to navigate, even if your brand isn’t inherently political. In a typical year, running social media for a brand account is complex. But during a year like this, the complexity and risk multiply tenfold.

To make it through this year unscathed, brands should consider what audiences actually expect from them, and have a plan in place to protect their brand safety.

Will brands sit this one out?

The dawn of social media activism—from #OccupyWallStreet to #ArabSpring to the 2016 US presidential election—changed people’s expectations of brands. Consumers started demanding that apolitical businesses take on a new level of corporate responsibility. According to Harvard Business Review, “Business has become enmeshed with politics and social issues…By 2018, CEO activism was seen as the ‘new normal.’”

In 2020, we saw brands speaking out more in response to the onset of the COVID pandemic, worldwide Black Lives Matter protests and growing concerns about climate change. So much so that brand activism on social became the expectation, and brands who remained silent on certain issues were heavily criticized.

But in the last few years, consumer demands have begun to shift again.

A few years ago, brands speaking out on issues was non-negotiable. But as The 2023 Sprout Social Index™ points out, today only 25% of consumers believe brands must speak out on causes and news that align with their values to be memorable. In fact, only 21% of consumers follow brands on social because their mission or values align. With skepticism around performative activism on the rise, audiences value brands that prioritize providing excellent service over lackluster public statements.

Data visualization from The Sprout Social Index™ 2023 that states 51% of surveyed consumers say the most memorable brands on social respond to customers. Speaking out about causes and news that align with their values is last on the list.

And it seems brands are growing weary of taking hard stances on political issues for fear that it could alienate members of their audience, invite a tidal wave of hate and trolling, or backfire in the future. When doing research for this article, no brands were willing to speak about their approach to this year’s election—suggesting brands are tired of being burnt by the harsh political limelight.

Some brands, like nonprofits and political associations, will inevitably need to be present in social media conversations about controversial topics. But even they will be selective about how they engage to reach their goals on social. They must be strategic in order to increase awareness, drive engagement and emerge from election season a thought leader. The key is being quick to the draw when it comes to sharing their unique POV on timely topics, and understanding which issues are important to their community. For example, Gen Z voters are particularly interested in mental health, while Gen X is more concerned about employment opportunities.

Though it’s still early, it seems likely that brands will be far less involved in this year’s US presidential election than in 2016, and instead focus on audience engagement and protecting their brand image.

The influencer loophole

While most brands might shy away from sharing explicit statements about their political affiliation, there might be one way they can still demonstrate their values: influencer marketing. Like Reformation’s latest campaign with Monica Lewinsky and, some brands will rely on influencers and celebrities to communicate their brand values.

Interestingly, the Reformation campaign focuses most heavily on their new line of women’s tailored workwear and Lewinsky’s political icon status. Even the political message of the campaign—“get out and vote”—strikes a much less political tone than brand activations in 2020.

When looking for the right influencers to work with, consider how their political views will land with your target audience and reflect on your brand. Even if your influencer campaigns are apolitical, your brand will be associated with the influencers’ values. Which can work to your advantage.

As Greg Rokisky, Social Media Strategist at Sprout Social puts it, “When partnering with influencers and creators, the Sprout team examines potential partners’ overall content and presence to ensure they align with our core values. That doesn’t mean uniformity in thought or that we shy away from bold opinions…At the end of the day, these partnerships are meant to create meaningful connections and add value to our community.”

So, if you take the “influencer loophole” in your approach to this year’s election, make sure you do it thoughtfully, authentically and with your brand’s larger goals in mind. Rokisky goes on, “We know creators, like anyone, have their own views and the right to express them. Our focus is on the content that directly relates to our brand, products and the positive impact we hope to create for our current and potential customers and businesses everywhere.”

Social listening is critical to assessing brand health

Whether brands go all-in on an election strategy or dial it back, one thing is true: Businesses have far less control over their brand narrative in the age of social—and social media during an election year is even less predictable.

That’s why leaders from across the business should ask their social team for regular updates on brand health during a presidential election. With social listening tools, they can dive into the sentiment and scope of political topics on social, and monitor for impending crises.

For example, Sprout relies on listening even more in election years. “During the election we will use social listening to tune into conversations that could impact our brand health and image. We are more mindful of protecting our brand from a crisis during the election because tensions are running high, and it increases the risk for every brand online—even B2B SaaS brands,” says Olivia Jepson, Senior Social Media Strategist at Sprout Social.

Sentiment analysis is particularly helpful to gauge the tone of political conversations, and how they intersect with brand health and industry trends.

A preview of Sprout’s Listening dashboard highlighting Sentiment Summary and Sentiment Trends.

Social listening isn’t just relevant for this year’s upcoming US presidential election. It’s just as valuable to elections happening around the world. With 64 countries holding national elections this year, potential voters make up 49% of the world’s population. By using a Social Listening solution like Sprout’s, teams can set up queries that track millions of conversations happening worldwide to zero-in on key learnings in seconds and ensure they protect their brand globally.

What it takes for brands to “win” in this election season

Managing social in a presidential election year can feel uncomfortable and nerve-wracking. Like you’re walking on eggshells—one misstep away from your brand cracking under pressure.

But changing consumer preferences suggest many want brands to stay in their lane, and only speak about issues selectively. While this takes some of the heat off of brands, the risk is still high. Companies that want to emerge from election year relatively unscathed and with their goals achieved, need to take more care safeguarding their brand.

Looking for help maximizing your brand protection strategy this election year? Check out our communications plan templates and webinar.