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Zelenskiy’s Head Digital Marketer on Their Winning Election Campaign
24 April, 2019

Head of Volodymyr Zelenskiy's digital election campaign assures us that he is not looking for a high position under Zelenskiy because he already has his own business. He found it interesting to deal with digital solutions for large state projects. Mykhaylo Fedorov was among those presented as part of Zelenskiy’s team three days before the second round of Ukrainian presidential elections. Fedorov's department was responsible for social networks where he developed a community of volunteers who joined Zelenskiy’s campaign on the internet. According to him, there were almost 600,000 such volunteers throughout the country.

Hromadske spoke to Fedorov about how this work was conducted, what the strategy was for social networks, and what the costs were. He also told us about how bot farms worked, and the concept of "state within a smartphone."

What is unique about this particular election campaign? How did you work? How many people and what resources did you use?

What is unique about it is that for the first time we decided to attract the highest number of Ukrainians to the election campaign itself. All our projects were as open as possible, and KPI for each project was to engage the maximum number of people. We even had a volunteer “Ze Digital” team, which helps us implement the strategy we have developed. Each stage in our campaign was maximized for engagement. This is a volunteer contact center, and communication with the administrators of unofficial pages, and various contests where the people themselves invented fakes about us. Each stage of the campaign was geared towards attracting people.

And how did you do that? Can you provide a concrete example? For example, the contact center. Who worked in it, who were these people, which issues were raised, and how did it work?

When we just launched our campaign, we immediately wrote in our Telegram channel that we need people in the contact center. The first step is already engagement. We did not go to our friends or siblings to look for these people, or to some agency. Instead, we advertised in the telegram channel that we need people for the contact center, we need volunteers. After that, we asked them to send us video resumes so that we could see people, look at how they think, talk, etc. because their main task would be communication. We received a number of applications, based on them, people were selected. For the most part, these were students finishing university and young energetic people. Some worked in shifts. We engaged them and proceeded to work with them. Now they became our foundation. I can’t even imagine the existence of our digital campaign without these people.

Mykhaylo Fedorov, head of the Digital Campaign in "ZeTeam" at Zelenskiy's campaign HQ on the day of the second round of the presidential elections, Kyiv, April 21, 2019
Photo credit: Bohdan Kutiepov / Hromadske

So they were sitting at home?

Exactly, they saw that Zelenskiy was running for president, and they wanted to become part of these changes. This also applies to a large number of people who support him today.

So it worked like this – you asked people to send you questions about Zelenskiy and leave their phone numbers, right? And then you started calling these volunteers?

This is an entirely different project, it is a volunteer contact center. We have developed an IT system, and we have cool partners who helped us do it. Roughly speaking, people from the market came to us, very well-known people, and they say: we have an IT solution that will help you realize your idea of a volunteer contact center. They gave us this solution. We provided any person the opportunity to pose a question to Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his team. But the most interesting thing is that this question is not answered by our contact center, which resides at our HQ, but by any person who has decided to study the subject and respond to the volunteer’s question. On the one hand, I, personally, wanted to ask Zelenskiy, so I filled out an application, and you, as a person who wants to help our campaign, became a volunteer and called me. At the same time, you have never been to our HQ, you’ve never had to undergo some kind of offline training. What competence are we talking about? People want to get an answer to a specific question. We developed an e-book called “Ze Book”. This book contains all the answers to questions asked by ordinary people. What surprised me was that no journalist across the country registered as a volunteer to get access to this book. We had nothing to hide.

So “Ze Book” is the program itself.

It is the program decoded because the program comprises 10 questions, but there are hundreds of pages there. If you search you can find the answer to any question: tariffs, taxes, business. People of all ages filled out applications, and our volunteers responded to all questions without any contact with us. They simply received the question, took a brief pause, googled the answer in our internal system, wrote it down, then called the volunteers and answered their questions.

And how many calls did you receive each day? Where is the guarantee that it wasn’t bots or supporters of other candidates who called you?

This was my biggest fear: that it would be the people who want to talk nonsense to those who trust us that would start calling and asking questions. Moreover, most questions come from those who are in doubt. And that was the danger. Somehow it worked like magic – probably because people are better than what we sometimes think of them. Most people are fundamentally good, even more than I thought. There was not a single case when someone specifically called to scold us and mess up our campaign. Not a single one. People called us, we answered all the questions - everything was wonderful, there was mutual trust.

READ MORE: Ukraine's Presidential Candidate Zelenskiy Presents His Team

Which communication channel was your primary focus? Facebook, Instagram, Telegram? We know that Zelenskiy has one of the largest Telegram channels in Ukraine. How did you grow it? Did you specifically focus on Telegram?

Yes. I had a desire to find the opinion leader among young people. It was probably because I was interested in this kind of audience and I was very interested in communicating with them somehow. We focused on Telegram, but I appreciated that Telegram was the hardest social network to grow. Therefore, if we can grow Telegram, our other social networks will grow anyway. In most cases to get to our Telegram channel, you have to follow the link from Facebook or Instagram. Accordingly, we worked on developing our Facebook and Instagram pages to simply lead people to our Telegram. We also did some extraordinary things that are more typical of businesses. We held competitions – a competition for the best sticker pack, a competition to meet the presidential candidate, a contest to win a cup or a T-shirt. Thanks to these contests, the audience grew significantly. It was interesting. On top of that, we sometimes published some unique content to Telegram only. It was then picked up by the media. It was fun.

If other candidates see what you are doing and start copying you exactly, would it work for everyone?

No. Mr. Poroshenko has tried to copy our model in the last three weeks. He created a website that says: “come and register”, he started actively growing his Telegram channel. He started asking people for something, publishing screenshots of their answers, and so on. When I start work on a new project, the first thing I do is think what its strongest side is, what is its essence, and why it beats other products and projects. In Zelenskiy’s case, it is the support of the people. His recognition rate is 100 percent that he is true and sincere. I had this insight: Zelenskiy is me. I mean, everyone thinks: Hey, Zelenskiy eats burgers too. Zelenskiy also cries, Zelenskiy’s mother is just like mine.

Yulia Tymoshenko also bought a hot dog at a gas station.

That is not her strong side. From the very beginning, Tymoshenko began to play someone else’s role, just like Poroshenko did. They began to act like the rest of the people, but they are not like that. They are oligarchs. Ok, maybe Tymoshenko isn’t but I think she is. They began to play a role they did not possess. They failed to find their strong side, on which they should have based their campaign.

Mykhaylo Fedorov, head of the Digital Campaign in "ZeTeam" at Zelenskiy's campaign HQ on the day of the second round of the presidential elections, Kyiv, April 21, 2019
Photo credit: Bohdan Kutiepov / Hromadske

But we understand that this is not just about the digital story. There was a series "Servant of the People", which was broadcast during the campaign, on the day of election silence, and there were concerts of [Zelenskiy’s studio] Kvartal 95, which continued. These are not people who use Instagram and Telegram. The carpet bombing came out.

Yes, these are our strong sides. [Zelenskiy’s] image is developed in the series too. I attribute this all to 100 percent recognition. We started working with Mr. Zelenskiy, when he already had 100 percent identification, and people understood his values. This is the result of the concerts and the TV series “Servant of the People.”

Does anyone else stand a chance? Maybe [Ukrainian rock musician Svyatoslav] Vakarchuk?

I think that everyone has a chance to become 100% recognizable. It requires systematic work.

No, I mean the people who already have the same level of recognition.

To become a president?

Yes.

Not everyone. Social networks and a digital strategy shape what already exists. It takes this form, which is then communicated to the people. It is a certain communication channel that enhances what is already up and running.

There is a lot of talk about bots. There is this notion of PorokhoBots (Poroshenko supporters), YuleBots (Tymoshenko supporters), and even ZeBots (Zelenskiy supporters) exist now. Did you use this mechanism in your campaign? How did your competitors work?

We never used bots, nor software that generates them, etc. I came from business, I have no idea how this is meant to work. With 100 percent support from the population, we do not need bots. For one comment from a third-party bot, we have 15 real people comments.

But you don’t have 100 percent support.

I mean 100 percent recognition. And with such strong people’s support (which is impossible to buy) we genuinely have, for one bot comment, we get 15 comments from a living person. We have developed our own system.

So you want to say that all these endless comments under our stories and broadcasts too, where these green hearts appear and “Zelenskiy is our president” is repeated, they are all living people?

Yes. I can explain why these people have this reaction. Because it is systematic work. The volunteer contact center is just one of the projects that we created. There are 10-15 such projects. When we started our campaign, dozens or even hundreds of unofficial communities began to appear within one hour. There is a person who lives in Dnipro, she can’t come to Kyiv or to some rally because we do not do rallies. She can’t come to a stall, because we do not have any stalls, but she does have a desire to help somehow. Seeing as we have a strong online presence, because it is our core territory and we were only present online, this person can create an online community. This is the first thing that can be done easily. About 2,000 such informal communities were created on Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram over the first two months. What did we do? We took people who created these communities, added our official regional HQs, connected them all in one chat and started communicating with them. They began to teach them through webinars, seminars. They were taught how to maintain pages, how to communicate with people, and how to sustain their energy.

The most active ones we brought to Kyiv where we held a meeting and then carried on the training and meeting up. Additionally, we always responded to the comments on Facebook, Instagram, to the emails. At the moment, we have 600,000 volunteers who applied and with whom we had communicated. We already sent 10 million letters to this database.

It’s the same as in real life: you can make anything up about me, but you will only get answers once you’ve spoken with me. Same thing online: we just carried on speaking with these people. There is one type of communication that was blown out of proportion in the media: Zelenskiy refuses to speak with the media and so on – that was one story. But a different story is our people from the basis of a physical contact center who day and night talk to people on Instagram, answer their questions, respond to emails 24/7. It’s this communication through messenger apps and so on. We were constantly talking to people. And while the journalists discussed everything under the sun, we really did talk to the people who then supported us by creating interesting pictures.

I recently spoke to a journalist and he said: listen, I spent three days analyzing, looking for your bots and the things you do to libel your opponents. He says: I didn’t sleep for three days, but I couldn’t find anything. I had been printing out all the images that people send in comments on the internet and I understood that they have no similarities between them. So, there was no systemic work to libel somebody. They were all the results of people’s will. [Some of] these [images] were even made using PowerPoint!

READ MORE: Investigation Reveals Zelenskiy's Alleged Movers and Shakers

What did you spend most of your money on? An investigation by our colleague, Denys Bihus, showed an amount [of money] that you reportedly mentioned in your correspondence, 240,000 hryvnias ($9,000) on bot support and attack [resistance.] What did you mean by that? How much does a campaign like that cost and what did you spend the money on?

Yes, there’s a clear statement: bots for defending against the attacks. These are not the bots that write comments, it’s a clear system that allows sending immediate requests to ban all the bots that were created on Facebook and Youtube. There was virtually a million of those, we were destroyed by botnets. I was constantly messaged by people from the market, these specialists on negative PR, I don’t even know why we have so many of them in our country and why they have no other jobs. They started coming to me. I met around four of them and then stopped [responding]. All of them kept giving me advice on what to do. They said that there are three botnets working against us: one in Turkey, one in Russia, and one in Ukraine. I don’t understand how they are created but I clearly understand how these things work. There is an attack on a certain opinion leader with a certain message, then this attack is picked up by bots without profile pictures, without friends. There is a key phrase – it can be mixed up with other words in different sentences – but there are key words that they always use in their comments. To counteract all these botnets, we created the project “ZeLiudy” (“ZePeople”). What is it? We said: there are many fakes spread around about us and these are picked up by bots. We need help in responding to these fakes so that you can come and deliver your point of view. Everybody who’s game – click this button and you will be automatically subscribed to our notifications in a chatbot. So people visit our website, subscribe to the chatbot using just one click. For example, Pryamyi TV Channel (which is linked to President Petro Poroshenko - ed.) published fake information that we had set up some [advertising] boards in Lviv that read some nonsense messages. Volodymyr Zelenskiy personally commented, “What are you doing, guys?” – by the way, that was when I got the idea. I was at home [then], on my warm sofa in front of my TV, – and then I see a person who is about to become president in the comment box. I felt a little uncomfortable. And I thought: if only I could tell 5,000 people to support Mr. Zelenskiy. When someone spreads false information, [our task is] not to destroy the person, not to write something negative. Many people are not as aware, they don’t know the internet that well. They see that there are many negative comments and they think: it must be true. This works well on people's conscience. But it’s untrue. So we tell the people: here’s some fake information, go into the comment box and respond with your own point of view. We don’t tell them which words to use. We just say: express your viewpoint. And they go and show what they think.

Thousands of comments appeared on Pryamyi’s page.

We didn’t test this on Pryamyi, we started testing this in the cases that followed. I’ll give you a simple example: there was some technical candidate, some journalist, I don’t know him. He used to do these polls: him vs. Poroshenko, him vs. Tymoshenko, and he won in all of those because it was his followers who voted. And then: him vs. Zelenskiy, and he writes something about Zelenskiy. And I said: let’s try this out. Here’s a poll: just say what you think, whom you support: him or Zelenskiy. In a minute or two, [the journalist] deletes the post and writes: ZeBots attacked us. These were ordinary people who spread this information in their unofficial groups. What’s my key message? With such support from the people who don’t just use their voice and votes, but take action on the internet, we don’t need bots or any negative PR technologies. We can just accumulate the energy of those people who are around us to protect our choice.

I can tell you one thing for sure: our strategy for the parliamentary elections won’t be to accumulate these people and try to win the parliamentary elections with their help. Our strategy will change. We need, together with these people, to work on creating such a system that will allow new people to enter the state system and change everything. If at that point I will still be working on this project, that’s exactly what I will be doing. To launch a social elevator – that’s probably what my mission will be. And I will get all these people involved not to win the parliamentary elections but to make the parliamentary elevator function together with these people. These people have already shown – they know how to work and fully dedicate themselves... Until this point, the strategy has been working. And it wasn’t exploiting people for the sake of victory. Now we need these people to work together on a project that will allow us to create a global HR strategy for the state. I would have redirected all of [what we have] into this. I think that would be the right thing to do. The task for the entire team is to restart our government on all levels. And not the positions that are elected by the nation, just for the sake of it. We need truly talented people to educate them so that they can replace those corrupt ones. There are many ways I can definitely help. Maybe everything will change.

Mykhaylo Fedorov, head of the Digital Campaign in "ZeTeam" at Zelenskiy's campaign HQ on the day of the second round of the presidential elections, Kyiv, April 21, 2019
Photo credit: Bohdan Kutiepov / Hromadske

But in what role – it’s not clear?

It’s not. I don’t need a seat in the office. I have my own business, I have many companies that I work with, digital agencies. I have a responsibility and I need to think of what I can do with it, how I can transform it in the correct way. But I know one thing for sure: what we said before, about a state within a smartphone –regardless of the role I have – it will definitely come to life. In what way – will I be there, will I work as a volunteer or will I find other people to do it (I’m positive that there are people who are smarter than me) – we will definitely do our best for it to work. I was introduced as a team member who was already working on the project.

So you cannot fully define what a “state within a smartphone” means?

I can. I, together with experts, have designed a concept of developing a digital state. And that’s written on a piece of paper. Actually, we have a document on every sector. Each document is between 10 and 100 pages long. We have a clear document where it’s conveyed point-by-point what needs to be done to achieve this “state within a smartphone” concept. Starting from digitizing a certain project as a test and ending with introducing blockchain into voting. From small to big projects.

And what are some of the standard state services that you need to implement into smartphones?

I would start with business because businesses quickly pick up new initiatives. Businesses always drive [ideas]. For example, we did things for business – opening and closing companies in two clicks. People who work in business saw that there are changes in action. They believed in it. It’s very important that people support all these initiatives. I would start with business. Then definitely medicine, education, and then electoral systems later. One thing that really annoys me is that receiving a note on being crime-free or on your family members via the internet – at least, these basic things that don’t require much money, time or anything else. But you have to queue for 4-8 hours. Of course, the dream is to work with ID cards. To make it mandatory for the entire nation to have ID cards, to get rid of all these paper documents that prove that you have the ID card. Today you need to have two pieces of paper on you in order to use your ID card. I would start with these basic processes.