Bruno Hoffmann: Brazil's Internet Strategist

Last weeks' interview with France's Nicholas Vanbremeersch is following up with an interview with Bruno Hoffman, about the state of online politics in Brazil.

Bruno is currently in Brasilia, Brazil, but I met up and worked with him a few years ago when he was working in politics out of DC. In July of 2008, he heard the call to return to Brazil and be part of DEA Brasil as their e-strategist and client manager, where he's been applying what he learned in the US to Brazilian politics.

In Sao Paulo (Brazil's biggest city), you recently worked as a consultant to the political e-campaign re-election of the Current Mayor, Gilberto Kassab. How did that go?

Most of our work was consulting and support to their IT campaign team online efforts. In fact, Kassab's e-campaign was considered to be the most sophisticated, there were over 50 staffers and volunteers collaborating as his web team. Even though he was mayor since 2006, Kassab was pretty unknown, because he was actually elected as vice-mayor. That was his first major candidacy, and people shown to be really skeptical about it, especially because he ran against 2 big political figures, including a former presidential candidate (who went to the run-off against Lula in 2006) and a former mayor who was serving as a Ministry of Lula's presidency, so it was not a shoe-in. Nevertheless, Kassab was reelected with 60.72% of the vote. So using the internet to take on some grassroots campaigning was definitely a big plus.

Have you worked in any other campaigns in Brazil?

Yes, I've worked in Salvador, Bahia (3rd biggest Brazilian city) for the e-campaign of the current city mayor: Joao Henrique, which was the closest race in the country. Nobody knew who would qualify for the run-off, there were 3 well-known candidates. He did it, and was later reelected with 58.46% of the vote.

What did you do in that campaign?

That was an interesting case, because in Brazil, campaigns are much shorter, limited to 3 months, and DEA Brasil was hired only ten days before the run-off election day. Prior to our arrival e-campaigning was non-existent to our client (They only had a wordpress-based website up), so we were responsible for the whole e-campaign. During that period, I was responsible for message development, email messaging, outreach, database construction and getting online supporters to take action offline.

Until we came aboard, the campaign hadn't sent any emails to supporters and they had no opt-in email list. So we got some strong supporters, already involved with the campaign, to begin the buzz, forwarding our messages to their private lists to join our campaign. We got those contacts all organized, then increased traffic to the website and end-up building a list of 36,000 opt-in supporters in a week.

We gave them actions like inviting friends, setting up email accounts for people they knew that didn't have one yet to join us, and asked for some geo-data in order to enrich our database and have a more segmented message. As an example of how strong a supporter built list we had, we experienced a 44.9% open rate and 14.1% click through rate. The astonishing fact for the ones working with the campaign, who had no e-campaign experience, was that at the last campaign day, in a matter of hours, we could get a 100 well-educated and trained supporters to volunteer to the campaign, while they were still paying to have a few unemployed workers wave flags on the streets.

The best part was to have a 100% endorsement from the campaign. For every e-campaign that we would ask for approval, the campaign manager would say: "Yes, sure! You're the specialists here!"

How widespread is internet usage in Brazil?

Brazil is the fastest growing Internet market from the developing nations (excluding China), new estimates show that more than 30% of the population have regular internet access from home, work or public places. But that can vary a lot from state/region, going up to 70% in certain areas. As an example, Google sites has a reach of 90.6% within internet users in Brazil, Microsoft sites: 86.6%, Orkut (Social Network): 85.3% and Wikipedia: 32.6% (according to the latest figures from COMSCORE).

Is there much of a blogosphere in Brazil?

Blogs are popular, specially the comedy ones, but specifically about political blogs the readers are political junkies and people that are somewhat related to the political arena. I'd guess a slight majority of Men and between 25 - 55 years.

Is there a developing or well-developed native political or issue-oriented blogosphere?

The major political blogs in Brazil are all newspaper/magazines affiliates, but it can be difficult to define who is right or left for instance. In a way they are all fair game -- there are just some more radical than others. There are about 20 important/influential national political blogs, all written by journalists and with no issue orientation -- addressing politics in general. TV Politica which is were I blog, for instance, is part of the hundreds of independent blogs that compose a "second tier" on the Brazilian blogosphere.

Which blogs/websites (social networking or other) are influential but aligned with corporations or traditional media (newspaper website), and are there any large independent bloggers?

In Brazil, Orkut (from Google) is a social phenomena aggregating the most number of users worldwide -- but the political action in social networks is still very limited. The most popular are the "communities" that are pro-candidate or movement oriented. But for regional issues it is a good force. For instance, the election results of the mayoral race in Rio de Janeiro were extremely tight and in a matter of 2-3 days, an online movement was created and the community had 13,000 people on the street, organizing street parades, and asking for a fair election. Their mission now is to hold the new mayor accountable.

Of the list of influential political bloggers, perhaps the most powerful ones are journalists part of big media groups and/or Internet providers such as, Uol, Globo, Abriland IG, some of them are: Josias de Souza (progressive), Ricardo Noblat (left-progressive), Reinaldo Azevedo (rightwing), and Luis Nassif (leftwing - also has a Ning community to interact with his loyal readers).

It's still difficult to find influential independent political bloggers, the corporative ones are still driving the issues on our blogosphere.

Do political groups or candidates use SMS or any political tactics through mobile phones?

Brazil is ranked the 5th country in number of cellphones with approximately 140 million cellphones total-- people have far more access to cellphones than to the Internet. Kassab did use it as a complementary tactic during his campaign, however, SMS is not being used much as a political tool just yet due to some legal issues regarding privacy. Now, SMS will become more and more important along with the other online e-campaigning tools in future campaigns, and we are already in discussions with some of the top US platforms in order to deploy it for some clients in 2009.

What is the political structure of the nation (federal vs unitary, presidential vs parliamentary), and are elections candidate-focused, or party-focused?

We have a Federal/Presidential system. The elections are organized all together. In 2008, people voted on the municipal level for mayor and city councils. In 2010 people will pick the president, governors, senators (2/3), and all federal and state representatives. Elections are totally candidate focused. Not that the party isn't important -- when we go by party affiliation, the voter can only assume what kind of candidate he/she might be. But in general, if the voter likes the candidate doesn't matter which party he/she's from. That is due to a lack of prestige and trustworthiness from the people towards political parties -- that work not for the people but for their private interests.

In regards to their having coherent web strategies (website, email, actions, fundraising, advertising), is that in the near future?

Despite the maturity of the Internet, Brazil has no eco-system like the US has today. There's also a cultural barrier in the actual participation by the people, as the Brazilian democracy is still a "teenager". But we're looking forward to close that gap soon, adapting the best technologies and strategies to our reality. No online fundraising or internet ads were permitted during this election. However, those are expected to be permitted in 2010! Also, I do expect huge, overall improvements for the next e-campaign election round.

Regarding to the interaction of the web strategies with other medias, and specifically in relation to Kassab's campaign, it wasn't perfect. I'd say that the website address was announced in the TV a few times, and you could watch all the TV and radio programs and ads promptly in the website -- but there wasn't a grassroots/mobilization effort able to fully integrate the web with mass media.

What have been some of the best-used examples of a internet strategy in politics during a campaign?

The Kassab campaign was the most active. Foremost, with their creating a page on the social networking site "Ning" on behalf of the candidate, so online supporters could share and discuss their ideas. The IT campaign team also created a website during the run-off election to highlight his opponent's flaws during her previous administration in 2000, and even a memory game with the same intention was a hit on the Internet: you had to match all the failures that his opponent had done as mayor. These were good efforts, but still need to be enhanced to get to today's U.S. level, and I'm sure some will by 2010.

Have internet politics played a role in shaping any policy in country, through public pressure or any other means, any examples?

Brazilians are found to be more politically active online during political scandals. In regards to the influence on policy, Internet politics have not yet played an important role. A good example of public pressure was when a comedy-journalistic TV show was prohibited to get into the national congress in order to interview politicians. They are really good in giving politicians a hard time and asking the tough questions people wanted to hear. But with that anti-democratic decision, a website was put-up for registration CQC no Congresso, and in 12 hours they had 50 thousand supporters, and after 260 thousand signatures they were free to come back to the congress.

In general, the high-cost of putting up campaign/participatory/transparency websites have limited our political action. However with the democratization of tools and open source technologies, I believe the scenario will change rapidly soon. Also, Brazil does have talented programmers/designers and organizations working in order to achieve that kind of healthy public pressure. That, combined with our efforts, will help accelerate this inevitable evolution. Let's give e-voice to the people!