A Victory for Social Media: Inside the Election of Colombia's New President

Juan Manuel Santos's race to Colombia's presidency is a social media case study for companies everywhere: How his team used Facebook, mobile apps and geolocation technologies to overcome a 12-point deficit and win with 70 percent of the votes -- all in just 50 days.

With 50 days remaining in the Colombian Presidential Election, candidate Juan Manuel Santos's one-time lead of 30 points in the polls had plummeted. Santos and his committee suddenly found themselves 12 points behind opponent Antanas Mockus. Santos and his staffers were scrambling to regain their lead.

After dissecting their approach and Mockus's campaign, they had their solution: Launch an aggressive social media strategy.

"Santos was getting killed on the Internet—there were so many negative articles," says Ravi Singh, CEO and founder of ElectionMall Technologies, the nonpartisan technology solutions provider that Santos's camp hired. "Mockus's committee had launched a very concentrated campaign against Santos. We did some research and found that we had to move online."

[For more on reputation management, read: "How to Protect Your Reputation Online" and check out these five essential tools.]

Mockus's ideals focused on the younger generation of Colombians, which comprise between 70 percent and 80 percent of Internet users in Colombia. Mockus used this demographic to his advantage, becoming visible in the social media space. In May, his Facebook page had more than 600,000 members—an enormous following by Colombian standards, in which social media and technology adoption are still in its infancy. The Santos Facebook page had a mere 98,000 fans.

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But a deeper look into Mockus's strategy revealed a significant weakness, Singh says. "Sure, they had over 600,000 Facebook members, but what they weren't doing was engaging them, and if you don't create engagement, you won't gain influence," he says. "That's what we knew we needed to concentrate on for Santos to regain his lead."

What Santos's campaign did next with social media presents a virtual case study for how organizations of all shapes, sizes and locations can embrace Facebook, mobile apps and geolocation technologies to win big.

On May 3—50 days before the final election—Santos's committee launched the Digital Task Force, a team of 80 volunteers and professionals responsible for Santos's online presence and activity in the social media sphere. The committee—and its headquarters—were constructed in 72 hours.

"The first week we were working around the clock—a much different pace than what Colombians are used to," Singh says. "I told them not to worry—I'll feed you, I'll give you Red Bull."

Campaign Focus: Generating Engagement

"[Singh] told us that our strategy was to stay two weeks ahead of our competition when we launched the new initiatives," says Luis Lopez, a member of the Digital Task Force. "That is, when we launched something new, we estimated it would take between one and two weeks for the competitor to replicate it, at which point we'd already be launching the next one."

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Relaunching SantosPresidente.com

The first initiative was relaunching Santos's website. Originally, Santos's website was "your typical, cookie-cutter politician site—it didn't use new technologies," Lopez says. The new site acted as a landing page and platform for Santos's news updates and various social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Delicious and Hi5, among others.

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"We started posting Ustream videos on the new website of Santos speaking live to his audience," Lopez said. They also created a taskforce of eight to 10 people equipped with iPhones who followed Santos on his campaign, recording and streaming videos of his visits and uploading pictures. "As expected, five or six days later, Mockus did the same thing," Lopez says.

To combat the negative press Santos was receiving, his team launched the "Wall of Shame"—a blog in which any Colombian could post "dirty war" materials associated with either candidate.

The Wall of Shame had several purposes, Lopez says. "We wanted a way to show people that if you posted something very nasty about a candidate or a lie, that they would be exposed and people would know about it," he says. "We wanted people to think twice before doing something like that." Members of the task force were assigned to monitor this blog and respond to the negative comments.

Going Mobile

The market for mobile phones—specifically BlackBerrys—is huge in Colombia, Lopez says, since many residents use them as their primary means of accessing the Internet. Knowing this, the Digital Task Force focused several of their initiatives on mobile.

One of these initiatives was making it easier for Colombians to vote. Voting stations were held at large venues—universities or shopping malls, for example. Each of these venues could have up to 50 rooms with 30 tables in each, which made finding your exact location difficult.

The task force developed a mobile app in which Colombians would text their voter ID to a special number and receive in text-message form the exact location—the venue, room and table—at which they were assigned to vote.

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The task force also developed a website that worked similarly. After entering their voter IDs, the site showed voters a map and the fastest route to get there. "This was something that had never been available to Colombians for a presidential election ever before," Lopez says. "It got people out to vote, which was our main goal."

Making It Fun

For the first time in Colombia, televised presidential debates were very popular, Lopez says. Santos's committee crafted agreements with TV channels to stream the debates on their website.

"We invited people via e-mail and Facebook to watch the debates on our website," Lopez says. "A lot of Colombians don't like microwavable popcorn, so we gave them step-by-step instructions on how to make it on the stove. We encouraged them to have friends over, take pictures, and post them to Facebook. We wanted it to be a fun, interactive event for them," he says.

[For more on Facebook, check out CIO.com's Facebook Bible.]

Santos's Digital Task Force also launched "SuperSantos," a game hosted on their website where Santos fights poverty, corruption, unemployment and drug trafficking. "It was something interactive and fun that people could participate in," Lopez says.

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The last initiative Santos's camp launched was called "virtual headquarters." This was a collection of 1,076 basic, individual webpages for each county, city and town in Colombia. These pages displayed a paragraph on the town's agriculture, attractions, weather and included information on a local contact that citizens could communicate with if they wanted to help in Santos's campaign. The site also included pictures of Santos visiting the area and options to print campaign merchandise such as bumper stickers.

Success for Santos, Social Media

On June 20, after 50 days of their full-fledged social media and Web 2.0 effort, Santos was elected president with 70 percent of the votes, 9 million in total—the highest recorded voting in the country's history.

Through their social media initiatives, Santos's Facebook page increase 183 percent, registering more than 278,000 fans with 1 million interactions per week. Santos's Twitter page, which had 2,200 followers in May, grew to over 10,000 followers—an increase of 360 percent.

"One of the macro reasons Santos was so successful was because there was a very clear action plan," Lopez says. "We knew that the competition had a large number of followers and fans, but they didn't have an organized strategy—we did. We were simply ahead of the competition, and that was the difference."

Staff Writer Kristin Burnham covers consumer Web and social technologies for CIO.com. She writes frequently on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google. You can follow her on Twitter: @kmburnham.

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