838423174_9bc870f51bSampad Swain (Blog | Twitter) has a good post on Social Media in India & Skepticism. His post deals with the relative indifference to social media by marketers and key decision makers. He cites 3 main reasons for the skepticism – lack of identifiable metrics, culture and age. Completely valid and excellent perspective. Here’s my take.

Let us understand the skepticism from 2 different angles – communicators and users. Under communicators, I’d add all people who intend to use social media to reach a set of target audience and communicate – marketers, PR folks, key decision makers and anybody representing a brand/ service/ company. Users…is simply the people on the other side, who consume the communication.

The most important skepticism from communicators, in my opinion, is numbers. This is the question based on internet penetration in India and as a result, adoption of social media. Communicators would rather spend their time and energy on a medium that gives them maximum reach, a criteria that is so vital to communication 1.0, in the physical world. Communication 2.0 would obviously be the online world where reach is not everything – engagement and involvement is even more vital. As Sampad points out, metrics to measure and understand such engagement/ involvement will be critical for communicators to make the switch. Till then, they might – unfortunately – hanker over reach in social media too.

For instance, back when we had no TV channels, mass media communication meant radio. When TV started, many advertisers would have been skeptical of TV since penetration was still a question. Now, communication via TV is a given. Similarly, social media acceptance has a lot to do with penetration…access to internet and hence, to social media. Just that, one doesn’t ideally overtly advertise in social media and learns the ropes of engaging with it.

To illustrate this point, radio communication required a studio for recording, voice over artists, script, creativity and audio editing facilities. Then, TV communication required a video recording set-up, actors, script, creativity and video editing capabilities. The equivalent of these things in social media is not mundane things like a web server, high-speed internet access or knowledge of English. Why? Because, for the first time, we have a medium that is completely interactive. It allows the consumers of communication to talk back, usually immediately. This single facet changes the complete dynamics and approach for communicators. So, instead of the mundane things required to start communicating via social media, communicators first need to unlearn what they did with conventional media and start from the scratch. They need to understand and imbibe the shift in communication – from passive, to ubiquitously active, and learn the etiquette of communication when the receivers of such communication are ready to shoot their opinions back.

Without this critical piece of understanding, its understandable that communicators equate social media with other modes of communication and merely look at conventional means of judging its effectiveness. Epic fail!

From the point of view of users, access is again a vital reason for skepticism. A few (millions, however) people online in metros do not make social media popular. India is far bigger than that. Mobile penetration holds the key to social media adoption in India. Social media can be an incredible medium for the most unexpected set of users in the country. Think about it…if mobile penetration is rampant in villages that farmers are using it, what is stopping the govrnment from using that as a medium to communicate information relevant to them? I’m sure there are grassroots movement to use mobile phones, but think about a Twitter-like communication scenario. Fertilizers/ seeds are available in a place far from the farmer’s residence/ feild…can they be updated via a twitter broadcast about the availability, which they can receive via mobile phones? SMS is good enough, but the twitter mode could help them talk back, if that sms service is outsourced. Add a vernacular translation layer over all this and you have a truly democratic communication set up for the people who need it the most.

For everybody else (people like you and me!), social media is definitely becoming the standard mode of communication, sometimes overtaking every other mode. So, whatever little skepticism there is will  vanish once they start using it more actively.

Photo courtesy: Kumarrana2000 via Flickr.