Mike Bloomberg's presidential campaign is taking a page out of President Donald Trump's book and trying to meet voters where they are. In this case, in the Instagram posts of accounts like "TrashCanPaul" or "S***headSteve."
A slew of popular Instagram accounts unleashed a blitz of sponsored Bloomberg posts on Wednesday in the form of satirical messages between the Democratic candidate and the various account holders asking for help promoting his campaign.
"Can you make a viral meme to let the younger demographic know I'm the cool candidate?" one on the @sonny5ideup account reads. Some of the posts refer to the sponsored nature of the posts (i.e. "yes this is really #sponsored" by the Bloomberg campaign).
The stunt drew widespread and immediate attention. A post on one of Jerry Media's popular accounts, @F***Jerry, had drawn nearly 384,000 likes by Thursday afternoon, while Mike Bloomberg's Instagram account had drawn more than 47,000 new followers on Thursday -- the first time that daily growth figure had topped 7,000 this month, according to social media analytics site Social Blade.
Bloomberg's campaign has been playing in new spaces to reach younger consumers. The candidate's Twitter account made waves last month during a Democratic debate with a slew of "weird" posts, like one reading "SPOT THE MEATBALL THAT LOOKS LIKE MIKE" with a photo of Bloomberg's face transposed onto a meatball. The Daily Beast also recently reported that his campaign had been pitching to "micro-influencers" with between 1,000 to 100,000 followers to create sponsored content.
As traditional TV is losing dominance, it makes sense for candidates to try and reach potential voters where they are. As Trump's campaign found a receptive audience on Facebook in 2016, this is Bloomberg's way of finding its audiences and trying to speak their language -- in this case on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
"While a meme strategy may be new to presidential politics, we're betting it will be an effective component to reach people where they are and compete with President Trump's powerful digital operation," a Bloomberg spokesperson told CNBC.
The Bloomberg campaign worked with Meme 2020, a project formed by people running influential accounts.
Doing Things Media, an Atlanta-based company that owns and operates 20 viral accounts including @animalsdoingthings, @nochaser and @neatdad, was one of the groups posting the memes. The company said it was connected to the effort by Meme 2020 lead strategist Mike Purzycki of Jerry Media, which runs other popular accounts like @F***Jerry and @Kanyedoingthings.
Doing Things CEO and co-founder Reid Hailey said his company's accounts now have a combined 50 million followers since starting about three years ago. Hailey had started his own account, @S***headSteve, and grew it to a million followers in less than a year, he said. Twelve of the company's pages ran Bloomberg memes, Reid said.
The company hadn't done a political campaign in the past, but its leaders said it isn't choosing sides by participating in this effort. Founding partner Max Benator said the company will only accept posts like this if they think they'll seem organic to the meme community.
"I think it's really bold," Benator said. "We woke up one morning and everyone's Instagram feeds across the country are jam-packed with this comedic content, essentially coming out of nowhere."
Joe Gagliese, co-founder and CEO of agency Viral Nation, said pages like @F***Jerry are considered "premium publishers" in their space and tend to be the most expensive. He said a sponsored post and "story" would typically run between $50,000 and $100,000.
Gagliese noted that the Bloomberg posts have made waves in the meme world, but not all in a positive way, noting that some users were making memes to criticize Bloomberg's past policies.
"They don't see it as authentic," he said. "They're fighting back by taking those memes and turning it into negative memes."
Gagliese also said it could be risky for the Bloomberg campaign to use accounts that might have poked fun at one of his campaign platforms or seemed out-of-sync with his beliefs.
"It's all fun, but it's not on-brand with what you would expect Mr. Bloomberg to be," he said.
Jason Wong, the CEO of Wonghaus Ventures who also created Tumblr meme account asian.tumblr.com and created the "Holy Meme Bible," said the entire campaign was "perfectly formulated to go viral."
Wong said the very phrasing of the disclosure of the memes (the "yes, this was really sponsored") created some confusion and prompted conversation about whether the posts were in fact sponsored.
"They essentially made it seem like, 'It's a joke, they didn't [run a sponsored post]. But maybe they did…' So people start making content to that similar to that on their own," he said.
The format of the meme, making it look like a direct-message conversation, can be replicated easily, Wong said. And that's certainly happening.
"It's a lot of free earned media for Mike Bloomberg," he said.
As for those negative memes, Wong doesn't think Bloomberg should be concerned.
"At this point, even if people make negative stuff about it, they're still talking about it," he said.
As for what's next, "For this campaign, they're not trying to push any sort of message. It's really about softening his image as a fun guy … These memes are so cringey and it is intentional. They don't want it to seem too native or too [much like an] ad. People know that it will be cringe if he makes memes about himself. But let's do it anyway to soften his image."
He said future messaging would likely be more focused on policy or the campaign itself.