Happy to post an interview I conducted with my new friend Farina Situmorang. She and I share an interest in the somewhat unusual intersection of technology and public service. I learned a lot from speaking with her, and look forward to seeing the great impact she will make in the years ahead.
Towards the end of 2013, Farina Situmorang had a hunch that the digital marketing skills she had honed in Silicon Valley could help the outcome of elections in Indonesia. Having seen a similar playbook unfold in the US, she decided to pack her bags and head to Jakarta hoping to make an impact at home – the fourth largest country in the world.
After several failed attempts to connect with the candidate, Situmorang and her team, dubbed ‘Efek Jokowi’ or ‘The Jokowi Effect’, were recruited by Joko Widodo to oversee digital marketing initiatives for the campaign including the volunteer registration website and the Facebook page, which ended up showing the fastest acceleration in users of any political Facebook page in history.
Situmorang shares her insights on the campaign…
I understand you’ve had a pretty broad set of experiences leading up to the Jokowi campaign. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved?
I’ve had some diverse experiences from a career perspective. I’ve worked for large companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Blackberry, and have also worked for and founded startups. On the other hand, most of that experience has really focussed around marketing and, in particular, digital marketing. I’ve lived all over the world, and one benefit of a global view is concept arbitrage or the ability to see how ideas that worked in one place will work in another.
I lived in the US during both of Obama’s campaigns and experienced how his digital strategy made such a difference in his engagement of voters and his understanding of their segmentation. Indonesia was about to undergo a presidential election where these techniques would matter for the first time. Most people in the West are not aware, but Indonesia is often considered the most social country in the world. Despite reasonably low internet penetration, we have the fourth largest population of Facebook users, the highest Facebook engagement rates in the world by some measures, and Jakarta is the most active city in the world measured by the number of tweets. I saw the potential to make an impact, especially given my background. So I moved home and volunteered for several different groups.
At that point, the candidates weren’t set but I knew I wanted to support Jokowi. I managed to get access to some high level politicians and even served in the Jokowi camp with another team of volunteers, but because of a difference in vision with the team members I ended up moving on. I helped an affiliate just part time for a while, and eventually got recommended to Jokowi himself, which is how we ended up working with a direct line. It took a very long time and it was a lot of effort but well worth it.
What was your role in the campaign?
I was officially the Head of Efek Jokowi, which is the group that ran digital marketing strategies for the campaign including the Facebook page and the volunteer registration page. This campaign was a bit unique in that there were many volunteers but the effort was generally not coordinated. Different teams were making videos as they pleased with different themes and different content. There was no coordinated brand strategy for instance.
I’ve heard that the PDIP who backed Jokowi contributed less to this campaign than in prior elections. Is this why the campaign was so chaotic?
Perhaps, but I think it had more to do with so many people wanting to support Jokowi. It became a “Jokowi and Friends” campaign where many of his supporters from across the political spectrum lent their aid, and many of them were not part of the PDIP infrastructure. So this led to a diversity in views and less cohesion than historical campaigns that were driven mainly through party machinery.
And I suppose Prabowo’s campaign was more like a well-oiled machine?
Well, yes. He did have a strong support from his party and he ran as the Vice Presidential candidate in 2009 with Megawati. As soon as he lost, he announced his intention to run for President, so had five solid years to prepare. The PDIP only announced Jokowi’s candidacy six months before the actual election.
Did this give them a head start in terms of their digital strategy as well?
Prabowo not only had more time, but he also had stronger coordination and much more funding. So we knew that we needed to focus on engagement and virality, given our limited budget.
We only had a chance to start executing our digital marketing strategy two months before the election, and basically had zero Facebook followers as against Prabowo’s five million. Within one month we had two and a half million users and engagement at over 100 per cent. 2.8 million users were liking or sharing content from our page, which was neck and neck with the number of users engaging with Prabowo’s page despite the fact that he had over double the number of followers. So in a sense, we caught up to his five years of work in one month. According to Facebook, this was the fastest growing political Facebook page in history, and the company is potentially writing up a case study at HQ, which is only the third time it has ever done this in the political sphere.
That must have been an incredibly exciting experience. What techniques did you employ to get more engagement on the campaign’s Facebook page and beyond?
In Indonesia, we don’t have as many sources of data to analyse and understand users. People generally pay in cash offline for transactions and prepay for their mobile phones so we had to work with what is strong in the country, social media. In particular, Facebook custom audience worked quite well. We were able to use traits to track down Jokowi’s target audience and optimise advertising. We also used retargeting for banner ads and had 30 per cent of people who landed on our site register to become a volunteer, which is higher than I’ve probably ever seen in terms of conversion.
I understand that you were responsible for this viral selfie that Jokowi took?
We got over 200,000 likes in less than one hour for that photo, and I’m not sure we can take complete credit, but he did take the picture with my phone so perhaps we can take some. But really the credit goes to the fans who shared it and took similar pictures themselves. We were stunned that we had this kind of reaction to one photo.
The viral selfie President Joko Widodo (left) took
What do you think are the main implications of a Jokowi win for entrepreneurs and players in the broader tech ecosystem?
There’s no doubt that Jokowi will support entrepreneurs and the broader tech ecosystem. Prabowo’s economic policies were much more focussed on the nationalisation of natural resources. His worldview originates from the idea that wealth consists of plantations and coal and real estate. Jokowi sees Indonesia’s people as a source of wealth, and therefore talks a lot more about empowering the people through education, healthcare and infrastructure. He understands that 0’s and 1’s can be valuable even if you can’t touch them. He will build tangible infrastructure to boost connectivity and some have discussed the creation of a tech hub, but the end goal is to help empower Indonesian people.
Jokowi is known as a former entrepreneur with fewer ties to big business interests than most politicians, so the expectation is that he will try to level the playing field more for SMEs and startups. As governor he already reformed the bureaucracy creating online systems for procurement and budgeting, which has streamlined systems where corrupt government officials kept processes slow in order to gain bribes. I think we should see further reform so it becomes easier to start a business and get licensed.
Jokowi has indicated that he will put qualified professionals in his cabinet more than appointees who satisfy political pressures. I’m hearing that the lists being circulated are filled with sub par candidates because they are mostly being generated by the party and don’t really reflect what Jokowi wants. Do you have any thoughts on these lists or any candidates who you would like to see in office?
These lists are created by different groups of people, and I’m not sure whom they are associated with. They are not Jokowi’s lists, so I would rather wait until he addresses this issue rather than speculate. From what I understand, the administration is focussing more on desired qualifications of candidates before populating lists with actual names, so I’m confident that we’ll eventually get strong ministers who the people want to see in office.
Does the atmosphere in Indonesia remind you a bit of what happened in the first Obama campaign? The two candidates both represented hope, a change from the establishment, and a champion for the masses who would fight against vested interests. But many Americans were disappointed with Obama’s presidency. I hate to say this but does this concern you at all?
The mood definitely reminds me of the US after Obama’s first campaign, but I think a couple things are different. First, we’re working off a much lower base in Indonesia than Obama was in the US. If Jokowi can deliver some very basic things, a small incremental improvement is going to feel much more substantial here than that same impact in the US.
Another difference is that Obama came into office as a junior senator and as state senator before that. He was clearly an exceptional politician, but his only experience in execution was as a community organiser. Jokowi, on the other hand, held two executive roles and made substantial improvements where he served. In Jakarta for example, he finished a dam project at Pluit that had been stuck in bureaucracy for over a decade. He cleaned up a slum by moving squatters into low-income housing. He jailed a group of thugs who were terrorising Tanah Abang market, and he created a universal healthcard so every citizen could go to a government hospital and get free treatment. Jokowi has proven that he can get things done, so I’m much more hopeful now than I think Americans had reason to be in 2008.
Will you serve in Jokowi’s administration?
I’m getting lots of interest for my consulting company from corporates and other governments around the world, and I am also currently working on the transition team for the new administration. I founded the Lean Startup Circle in Jakarta, I’m a mentor at a startup incubator, started a Paleo lifestyle community, am learning to be a crossfit coach and frequently guest lecture at the University of Indonesia. All of this obviously keeps me very busy. If he asked me to serve, I would have to consider given my love for my country, but as of now, I’ve got quite a bit on my plate already.