By the end of April in Colombia, former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus’ Green Wave had become a serious challenge to Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian presidential candidate who was synonymous to continuation of outgoing President Álvaro Uribe’s popular 8-year term. Appealing to a large mass of idealistic youngsters, who comprised a high percentage of the estimated 15 million-plus Internet users in Colombia, Mockus was king of the digital world, with more than 600,000 fans on Facebook, a strong following on Twitter, and banner ads running in all leading publications in the country.
Enter an 80-person strong Internet task force assembled in just 72 hours in a war room in Bogota, led by Election-Mall.com and local operatives. The challenges: neutralize the Green Wave; appeal to a pool of young voters who were digital-savvy and thirsty for change; bring innovative technology to Colombia’s political landscape. And of course, get Santos elected.
Fate & Setup
When Ravi Singh, founder and CEO of ElectionMall.com, a non-partisan technology company powered by Microsoft, landed in Colombia for the first time, he was to speak in Medellin and head straight back home to Washington D.C. Little did he know that Santiago Valencia, a young Colombian politician, would lure him into a great e-democracy adventure: Recovering 6-12 months of lost time in digital initiatives, and catch up to Mockus’ leadership on the Web, in less than 50 days. With a client list that has exceeded 1,000 campaigns under his belt, and an ongoing negotiation to become Microsoft’s political software arm in the works, Singh went straight to work. With a 24/7 work discipline, and a brutal drive that overcame culture, nationality and race, Mr. Singh convinced the Santos campaign and Sistole – a direct marketing agency that is part of Sancho’s, the candidate’s advertising agency - to build a digital War Room in little less than three days. The War Room included a mesh of local staff that grew from 5 to 80 in aweek; fully-secure network servers; BlackBerrys for the entire team; iPhones for the advanced task force; video streaming from live events; a walled-off conference room, balcony, loft-style living room space, a metricswall, and an abundant supply of Red Bull, potato chips, candy and anti-bacterial soap.
The tactics – 50 days to catch up
On day one, the candidate’s official website went pitch-black. It wasn’t a local hacker or neighboring Venezuela launching a cyber attack. It was actually the beginning of a 50-day, highly-orchestrated set of tactics that had one goal in mind: Getting Santos elected. With individuals responding to names like Mr. Twitter, Ms. Delicious, Video-guy, or
Mr. SMS – the team’s operatives were rolling. Tactics were laid out across the War Room in sequential order: A countdown from day 50 (roughly May 3rd), all the way to day zero (June 20th, second-round Election Day). The team would execute precise tactics, and the competition would wake up to them and respond a week or so later.
Among the most innovative tactics were an iPhone app, where users received daily feeds from The U Party (Santo’s political party) and general election and candidate news; an advanced team feeding live streams via Ustream with iPhones from the towns or cities where Santos campaigned; an SMS short code (677) that worked across all national carriers (Comcel, Movistar, Tigo) for opt-in SMS strategies led by local company SigmaMovil; pop-corn debate watch parties (including instructions for preparing pop-corn); targeted search engine marketing; cascade-style online advertising, and a real-time Wall of Shame, where any citizen could post offensive material related to any candidate, in order to combat the dirty war that was happening across social media.
The Mockus started emulating the Santos tactics, almost one by one, but with a one-week delay. And when the Mockus campaign began its rebuttal, the Santos campaign was already launching a new tactic.
Within 3 weeks of the Internet Task Force’s efforts, a shift in perception was achieved: Santos went from “old-school” and “boring” to become a superhero with an exciting SUPER SANTOS video game, where the candidate fought poverty, corruption, unemployment and drug trafficking in a Super Mario Bros-like environment. The main Web site – SantosPresidente.com – received more than 40,000 visits each day. More than 4 million opt-in e-mails were assembled in 6 weeks. Individual tactics like the Baby-Santos video were receiving 11,000 views a single day. Mockus also experiences a number of high profile gaffes – saying he “admired” unpopular Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and that he’d extradite current Colombian President Uribe to Ecuador – which the Santo campaign aggressively highlighted in its online messaging.
In the first-round of balloting on May 30th, Santos totaled nearly 7 million votes, and doubled the opposition by 47 to 22 percent with seven other candidates dividing the rest of the vote. Far from considering “a job done,” the Internet Task Force, at that point being dubbed “The Web 2.0 Victory Team,” went into high-gear.
The most aggressive and innovative tactics were deployed after the run-off. For the first time, Colombians were able to send their voter ID number (“cedula”) to the SMS short code, and receive their exact voting location to their cell phones. With a cell-phone penetration nearing 100%, this was a huge hit with the Colombian voters. If this voter ID number was entered on the Santos Web site, the user would receive his or her exact voting location on a digital map, provided by national developer Servinformación, along with a suggested route.
A few days before second-round voting on June 20, the Virtual Headquarters was launched. This initiative involved 1,076 individual web sites – one for every city, town and county in Colombia. These pages included local information, contact data for the representatives in each location, and personalized merchandising, including posters with the location name. These were a first for Latin America. The initiatives helped Santo tally almost 9 million votes, the highest recorded vote numbers in the country’s history. Santos ultimately won election in a 2-to-1 blowout, racking up 69 percent of the vote.
The Future of E-Democracy in Colombia
It would be too ambitious to say that the Web 2.0 Victory Team got Santos elected. Or that – like was the case in the United States with Barack Obama – the elections were defined online. But, it is fair to say that, for a people who didn’t quite grasp the power of digital media before the 2010 presidential elections, history was made.
Juan Manuel Santos, now a Blackberry-toting, tweeting citizen, is committed to continue using technology, social media, and innovations on the web, to stay close to the citizens. With a highly profiled database and an understanding of the power of the Web, Santos will continue to use the technology in his government. Colombia, now one of the most solid democracies in Latin America, was recently dubbed the “Star of the South” by U.S.-based Newsweek magazine. The country showed the world a successful electoral process in 2010. The use of the Internet, Social Media, Mobile Marketing, Online Videos, and Search technologies among others gave the Santos campaign an edge that caught the competition – and the country – by surprise, and that contributed to a victory that was well received by most Colombians and the international community.
Luis G. Lopez is director of LGL/Latin Medios, a digital agency in Bogota. A self-proclaimed Digital Freak, he acted as head liaison for Ravi Singh in the Internet Task Force. Ravi Singh, known as the “Campaign Guru” is CEO and Founder of ElectionMall.com, a non-partisan political technology company powered by Microsoft. Dr. Dennis Anderson, co-author, is chairman and professor of management and information technology at St. Francis College in New York City. He received his Ph.D. and M.Phil. from Columbia University.