On May 29, Rodolfo Hernández, an anti-establishment politician, defied pollsters’ expectations when he progressed to Colombia’s 2022 presidential election runoff later this month. There, he will face Gustavo Petro, the left-wing former mayor of Bogotá.
Most of the international coverage of Hernández’s unexpected success has highlighted the candidate’s prolific use of TikTok — at one point, Hernández had more followers on the short-form video platform in the lead-up to the election than all his competitors combined, earning him the title “King of TikTok.” But behind the scenes, the Hernández campaign also seems to have strongly benefited from another digital tool: a below-the-radar SaaS (software-as-a-service) political marketing platform, which uses messaging apps to build political support networks for candidates, called Wappid.
In December 2021, the Hernández campaign signed a contract with Wappid, a software that on the surface resembles a social network, connecting supporters primarily via WhatsApp, which is used by roughly 92% of Colombians. But Wappid also uses referral marketing techniques and gamification to encourage registered users to grow their own personal support networks under the umbrella of Rodolfistas.wappid.com. The site was built and is operated using Wappid and is Hernández’s campaign team’s principal nexus of more than 500,000 supporters. Hernández supporters who spoke to Rest of World, like lead Hernández volunteer Andrés Cabrera, credit a substantial part of Hernández’s election success to Wappid’s network multiplier effect, which he called “the backbone of the campaign.”
“[Hernández] doesn’t fill public squares,” Juan Manuel Corredor, founder and CEO of Wappid, told Rest of World. “He goes and creates his [digital] network, and the network does the work for him.”
The 38-year-old Cabrera witnessed this firsthand. He grew his own network to more than 22,000 users by using Wappid, which he said helped automate and scale the digital leafleting he’d been doing manually before. Thanks to Wappid, Cabrera became the node of a broader network of other rodolfistas (Hernández supporters) who were connected to him through WhatsApp. Through these networks created via referrals, which in turn became WhatsApp groups, they organized on-the-ground support, including motorcade rallies, known as caravans, across the country.
“Having a community of volunteers is important,” Juan Sebastián Delgado, vice president of the Colombian Association of Political Consultants, told Rest of World. “Because, at the end of the day, they are the agents of the message and the ones called upon to carry out the final act of a campaign, which is to vote.”
Wappid was founded in 2017 and currently operates under the name of 56-year-old Corredor, who was inspired by referral marketing tools to build “the tech solution for winning elections through WhatsApp.” Though Corredor and his core team of a few full-timers are based in Colombia, he contracts freelance engineers and designers to work on a project basis remotely throughout Latin America. In total, around 20 people normally work on each project.
Built for José Francisco Yunes Zorrilla, then-candidate for local government elections in the Mexican state of Veracruz, Wappid’s main client base so far has been in Latin America and Spain, but the platform plans to launch in the U.S. and France next year. The company claims it has been used in successful presidential and local election campaigns, including for Luis Abinader, elected president of the Dominican Republic in 2020, and a year earlier for Daniel Quintero, the now-suspended mayor of Medellín.
Rest of World reached out to individuals involved in the Abinader, Quintero, and Yunes Zorrilla campaigns but received no answer.
Wappid has deliberately kept a low profile online, with Corredor claiming he has avoided advertising. Corredor is Colombian and a die-hard rodolfista, so he sold the Hernández campaign’s exclusive rights to use the platform in the first round of the elections for 140 million Colombian pesos (just shy of $37,000). Now, Corredor — who also administers a rodolfista volunteers’ Facebook Group — is donating his services to the campaign.
Users who join are encouraged to invite friends via WhatsApp, to help Wappid grow networks of activists. There, they can receive information, chat to other supporters, and share multimedia content. The system is based on incentives to take action, rather than other social media’s more passive voyeurism. Once users are signed up to Rodolfistas.com, they must share links inviting friends to do the same via an automated WhatsApp message, as Hernández himself explained in a personal recorded appeal on the site: “You have to do this if you want to help me.” In doing so, users create an ever-growing “spider web” of networks, to which they are incentivized to constantly invite new people, who invite their friends, who invite theirs, and so on.
“Referral marketing tools [like Wappid] will be the future of political marketing,” said Daniel Palis, the CEO and co-founder of Ekkofy, a referral marketing tech tool for the private sector, who quipped that Wappid could one day become a competitor for his business. “Every day, audiences generate more and more barriers and rejection of traditional political propaganda, and this is a way to group, lock in, and get to know an audience that is currently atomized.”
Wappid gamifies user participation by ranking users according to the size of their network. That’s the campaign’s ñapa (added extra) tweeted journalist Perla Toro, who specializes in digital communication.
In return, leading volunteers who invite the most friends are rewarded with personalized voice and video messages from Hernández. Sofía Higuera, a 22-year-old biomedical engineering student who managed Rodolfistas.com and now coordinates the campaign’s call center, believes the prospect of direct communication with Hernández entices voters seeking to connect with him. “I haven’t seen another campaign in which a candidate has that kind of proximity to the people,” she said.
Wappid targets users by inviting them to join networks based on their location or profession, details they are asked to provide upon registration, as opposed to bombarding them with generalized network suggestions. Delgado believes this segmentation works because users can join groups tailored to their own interests. Wappid’s networks then become a database for Hernández’s team to send supporters more-tailored information.
With the run-off vote looming, according to Cabrera, Hernández’s team’s strategy is to increase the rodolfista user base to 1.2 million users, each of whom is tasked with garnering at least 10 votes, to give Hernández the 12 million they believe they need to win the election.