The Biggest Lesson of the Duterte Campaign: Turn Social Media Conversation into a Movement

Remember the 2010 presidential elections? Social media (and smartphones) weren’t as widespread as they are today, but we distinctly remember a downtick in online conversation about the president-elect right after Noynoy Aquino assumed office. After the heated fervor of the political campaign, Facebook feeds predictably returned to cute cat videos once it was all over.

Not so with our new president, Rodrigo Duterte. Thanks to social media, the candidate, once seen as someone who’ll need to move heaven and earth just to win, was elected to the country’s highest position without the machinery and the funds of other candidates. More than that, he still continues to dominate the conversation, even after assuming office.

There’s certainly a lot of factors that contributed to this, not least of which is the man himself—and the communications team behind him. How was Duterte able to pull off his social media domination? This was one of the main questions White Space Club wanted an answer to when they invited Team Duterte’s Nic Gabunada as guest speaker at their recently held event in Pasig City.

A veteran strategist in the marketing and advertising world, Gabunada was tasked to come up with a social media plan to increase the awareness about Duterte. He shared some lessons he and his team picked up along their journey. Whether you’re trying to create an online plan for a brand or a political platform, you can certainly glean a few things from these four major lessons Gabunada shared.


Appeal to a Specific Demographic | DU30 Lesson 1

Appeal to a Specific Demographic | DU30 Lesson 1

DU30 Lesson 1: Appeal to a specific demographic

The biggest challenge for the Duterte campaign was to introduce the Mayor to a nationwide audience. Hailing from Davao City, and a native Bisaya, Gabunada shared that they used this perspective to frame Duterte as the hard-hitting alternative. Slogans like “Bisaya naman” were used to appeal to and build a solid Bisaya base. And as we saw during the campaign period, Bisayas were vocal online because they have an affinity with Duterte.

DU30 Lesson 2: Choose authenticity over gimmicks

Gabunada stressed that Duterte instructed them that he will cooperate with them only if they authentically packaged him. As we saw during the campaign, social media was full of posts on the Mayor’s tough (and often foul-mouthed) talk.

 Juxtaposed with stories about his compassionate nature and his achievements in Davao City, they were able to show that Duterte was a capable, strong, and independent leader the country needs. The team was able to shift the attention from the flaws of Duterte’s personality to his leadership skills—which appealed to the voting public.


The Best Way to Sell Anything is by Word of Mouth | DU30 Lesson 3

The Best Way to Sell Anything is by Word of Mouth | DU30 Lesson 3

DU30 Lesson 3: The best way to sell anything is by word of mouth

Stories appealing to people’s emotions often get traction on social media. Understanding the power of word of mouth, Gabunada said they encouraged people to share their own Duterte story with the hashtag #mydutertestroy earlier in the campaign period. This helped people who didn’t know the then-Mayor get to find out more about him. Because they are tales from real people, they were easily shared, and quickly became viral.

DU30 Lesson 4: Transform your social media following into a movement

The true test of a social media campaign is if the core message translates offline. For the Duterte campaign team, the objective of their online campaign was simple: Get people to vote.

Knowing they were at a disadvantage in terms of ad and election material spending, Gabunada said their call to action was always for people to help spread the word about Duterte either through social media or through their own efforts. They encouraged their followers to cast their ballots on election day.

This led to different groups making their own Duterte campaign materials and shirts out of their own pockets. They also mobilized and attended campaign rallies. And of course, they lined up, voted, and, as of the moment, continue to be vocal in social media. Reflecting on his team’s work, Gabunada said they successfully formed a movement—one that continues to be strong even after Duterte won the elections.

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