Selling social media in India, 2014 – Episode 4

First things first – I’m glad that I (continue to) have a specific point of view on this topic (series, for me, in this blog – part 1, part 2 and part 3), from what I shared in the past 3 episodes! So, here are the things that I see in India, as evolution in the social media space.

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1. Generic platform/page/social media property management is either dead, or dying, and pointless

Yes. There is no point in continuing to pay an agency or create an in-house team to create a page on Facebook, or a handle on Twitter or any other social media platform. This is a pointless waste of time – there, I said it! – if the team or agency comes up with ‘content buckets’ featuring 5-6 large topics closely associated with the brand and creating content on them day-after-day.

This is nothing but the older model of email/print newsletters, and merely transporting it to a social media platform does not make sense anymore. Why? Because,

1. It doesn’t help a user/customer place the brand in any one context or offer a quick, solid reason for ‘following the brand online’.

2. Every brand and its adopted parent brand now have a Facebook page (or a Twitter handle). This is an explosion and almost everyone is performing the same ‘content calendar’ item number.

3. Earlier, the opportunity of being able to create a free social media property was the main draw for brands – now this draw doesn’t exist anymore. Because, building a fan base takes a lot of money (not just effort) and sustaining that audience takes even more money and effort.

4. The only way to still continue doing it and make business/brand sense is to hire a professional editorial team to do this job, as against a ‘social media’ agency with a team of random people in it. The job needs to be treated like creating a brand’s publication and needs to be considered as a subscription-building mechanism.

Takeaway: Content for content’s sake is clearly out.

What next?

Content for/with a purpose. The crux is, can a person ascertain what a brand’s social media page is meant for, with one glance? Can the page’s last 3-4 pieces of content help a person identify and decide why he/she should invest time to follow the brand online? Generic content buckets with random, possible connections to the brand are not going to help in this case.

The way forward is perhaps a narrowly defined content calendar. Like a detergent powder can decide that it will stand for any and every manifestation of ‘clean’ in India, and look at mainstream news on any kind of dirt – literal and figurative – and place itself in that context. This requires reactive content, based on what is happening online in India.

Or a cooking oil brand may decide that, instead of producing content around recipes, weight loss, food tips, cooking tips, trivia yada, yada and blah…it will stand for just one thing. For example, the brand would post tantalizing food pictures every weekday at exactly 12:45pm. That way, the more it does, the more people will follow it for a reason. After building some traction, the brand can then expand the scope within that spectrum – ask people to name the dish posted as photo. Then ask food recipe bloggers to dish out a recipe for the photo and reward the best one. And so on. But the point is, the effort stands for one thing and does it really well, so that people are able to connect at least one great, useful, interesting, fascinating thing to that effort with the brand – as long as that thing fits the brand’s positioning and messaging perfectly.

This is not earth-shakingly new actually – if the former effort (using generic content buckets connected to a brand) was like starting a magazine/publication online, the latter (this idea) is similar to starting one section alone in a magazine/publication online, via a social channel. It obviously also helps in better targeting and attracting the right audiences.

Another perspective to this could be around brands with a sustained enough interest in creating branded content, looking towards media/journalists to build their team. In essence, get the professionals to build branded content and sustain engagement with appropriate target audiences.

Whichever way you look at it, the crux is that the central content repository should be brand-owned, not rented/leased – which is what social media properties are. The point is to use social media channels for content promotion, not for hosting valuable content created with a lot of money and effort because of the fleeting and ambiguous nature of their algorithms.

2. Real-time content creation is still a work-in-progress

We are still a few months/years away from this in India since very few brands have tuned their real-time listening to content creation. I can’t blame them either, because most invested in real-time listening from a CRM perspective – to know what people are saying about the brand vs. competing brands. If the systems are tuned differently (or extra) towards listening to what’s buzzing, inside or slightly outside the brand’s industry, that can open up a lot more avenues to create content in real-time and place the brand in context.

Takeaway: There’s so much that brands can do in terms of real-time marketing, if they listen to social media conversations with that requirement and perspective!

What next?

In the past 2 odd months, I have been tweeting a lot on opportunities for brands that can ride on something buzzing. The only thing missing is an agency’s or an internal team’s efforts in keeping track of what is making news, hour after hour, online, and translating one or more of those into something that is relevant to the brand.

Here’s the example I had suggested Volkswagen can do. And the one for TBZ Jewelers.

And here’s a suggestion for Lifebuoy Handwash!

And one more – a suggestion for Santoor soaps!

These are things that I noticed randomly – imagine a team with sophisticated (but not too expensive) tools to keep track of what’s buzzing! As I mentioned, the only thing needed – and is invaluable – is a person/team’s inputs and ideation into what can be used and how. If that is nailed, getting it articulated in the form of the necessary creative output is easier. Of course, the format of execution may make things tough – for instance, if the content needs to be a video, it’d need more time, effort, cost and production capabilities. Barring video, though, most others can be managed very easily and that’s what makes social media interesting and easy to handle for real-time content.

3. The dramatic changes in media hierarchy – the rise of Digital Native Content Creators/Curators (DNCCs, to avoid writing it in such length every time)

Two years ago, a standard discussion with a client, around a social media campaign went, “We need Facebook ad spend to help it reach…? Now, it goes, “We need to ensure that it gets into ScoopWhoop and Storypick, ok??

Facebook ad spends continue, but what’s new in the arena is a whole lot of digital native intermediaries who help spread stuff. They either curate things – and do only that really well (where do you think I got the idea for point 1, above?), or have become parallel media vehicles on their own by creating original, interesting content consistently, like The Viral Fever or All India Bakchod.

Takeaway: The pecking order on social media has changed and it’s time brands are aware of it and made use of it.

What next?

In the recent past, sites like ScoopWhoop, StoryPick, Buzzfeed etc. have helped a lot of campaigns go viral. In comparison, digital native content creators like AIB and TVF have worked with brands like Shah Rukh Khan, Alia Bhat, CommonFloor, Snapdeal, Airtel, among others, in helping them augment the promotion of a product, program, personality or a film. In some cases, some brands have stopped using mainstream media promotions and are opting solely for such DNCC promotions – like CommonFloor’s work with TVF, in the form of the Permanent Roommates series. One could argue the efficacy of such efforts, but for digital brands like CommonFloor, it perhaps makes a lot of sense.

I’m sure more and more brands will look at these DNCCs as a legitimate channel to seed the thought about a product or a campaign. The mighty Airtel, also opting for a promotion by TVF, for their one-touch Internet is a great example.

4. The increasingly dicey nature of ‘influencer’ engagement

Influencer engagement started off very differently, a few years ago, with social media influencers in India. The underlying assumption was that social media allowed anybody with the capability to listen to what people seem to be discussing online, in public forums and social networks, pick people who,
(a) Consistently speak about a certain topics
(b) From (a), people who seem to have a better clout in terms of an audience

… and engage with them in some form so that they become a channel of promotion and credible engagement for and around a brand/product. If they are – incidentally – incentivized to do that, it seemed like a win-win for everybody involved.

What has happened, from that state, is that most social media influencers have started looking at themselves as a DNCC… yes, a digital native content creator/curator. And rightfully so! Why not, indeed? But that has also taken brands back to media planning – instead of media planning for just print and TV, they have extended the same to influencers too. On the other side of the equation, many influencers have realized that they are in demand, as part of the all-new media hierarchy and that they can utilize it to either augment their income or make money solely from this source.

The not-so-good part of this evolution is that there are more paid-influencers who write for/on behalf of brand with no/limited disclosure about the arrangement than there are influencers who do it completely respecting their audiences. It is also a fact that, like in PR circles, an agency prefers to work with a ‘malleable’ journalist, who would listen to the guidelines set forth by the brand/agency and try to balance his/her own perspective while also accounting for what the brand wants to communicate. Replace ‘journalist’ with a ‘blogger’ or a ‘Twitter user’ and you see what I’m heading to.

At least in case of a media publication, there are multiple ways and checks to ensure that a piece doesn’t merely parrot a brand’s perspective completely ignoring reader interests (as against paid advertising, where such checks do not apply). In case of social media influecners, they are usually individuals, deciding on their own what is right and wrong for their audiences. In many cases, their audiences do not care either, about disclosures and other such nuances – and as long as they can sustain audience’s interest, they will continue working ‘closely’ with brands into a win-win situation for brands/agencies and themselves.

Takeaway: Creating noise on social media will continue to be a priority.

What next?

I’m not arguing that this trend of creating noise via social media influencers, for a fee, is wrong. It’s just that if there’s a discussion around paid news in mainstream media, there should eventually be a discussion around paid news on social media too. Right now, brands are just happy with the noise they are able to generate, trend their hashtags and gain visibility. At some point, like the lack of credibility around paid news in mainstream media, brands would eventually wake up to that fact that beyond mere noise, they need to build a repository of credible third party opinions and that’s when social media influencers who value and respect their audiences will start to be in genuine demand. Till that happens – perhaps in the next 1-2 years – social media influencers of all shapes and sizes will profit from this trend of broad and generic influencer engagement, I assume.

After all, it took the PR industry a LOT of time to go past any and every kind of ‘media exposure’ to asking the right question of the kind of media exposure that is actually credible and useful.

5. Integrated marketing communications is still a lip-service

Right now, integration stays on the point of the brand team with the largest budget allocation calling the shots with their ideation and letting other teams perform as an after-thought. For instance, TV advertising may take precedence given the budget that goes into production and ideation, while digital, social and other forms would be asked to mirror that idea/theme and make it work for respective media vehicles.

But, globally, there are efforts to turn this around. Brands like HP, Dunkin Donuts, Trident Gum (to name just a few) have created TVCs using Vines! I’ve also written earlier about Indian mainstream advertising using social media nuances and tools to convey their stories.

These – of course – do not mean that social media is taking precedence to conventional TV advertising, but there’s an increasing tendency to social’ize even traditional media narratives.

Takeaway: The integrated marketing communications pecking order may be ripe for a change too.

What next?

Well, there’s so much one can do if we think through the integrated model. Ideas could be tried and tested on social first, and then the best one can be executed as a TVC or a print ad.

Or, a TVC could have a social interaction activation baked into it, so that it works across 2 forms of media – TV and social media. This will be more than the currently-in-use lip-service style interaction: ‘Visit us on Facebook at…’ as the last shot, or, ‘Follow us on Twitter…? It could go deeper, by creating a story for TVC that has people guessing it?s ending and tweeting it with a hashtag. Or, asking people to notice something from a TVC or a print ad and let users respond that with a hashtag, online on social media. Given the proliferation of the second-screen concept, and assuming more and more people are watching TV along with a internet-enabled mobile device, this may be closer than you think.

6. A better handle on social media data would be better

Social media data continues to be treated as a not so predictable, or not too trust-worthy form of data. A common mistake many agencies and client teams do is to try anecdotal searches on free tools and arriving at a conclusion that there’s not enough that is useful. This happens to be a stark problem particularly for low-value, low-engagement product categories that do not offer any use for people to talk about. Chewing gum, for instance. Or tooth paste. Or underwear. You get the drift.

But as I mentioned in point 5, this is limited only by the brand’s and the agency’s creativity. Why cannot an underwear TVC be embedded with a question (in the narrative) and ends with a call-to-action for viewers that has them reacting to it on, say Twitter, with a hashtag? That brings even an underwear brand to be spoken about on social media.

Takeaway: We’re just scratching the surface of social media data. This is one area that can transform many legacy forms of communication, if only we think through that spectrum.

What next?

TV is considered to be a broadcast medium. But, if an inherently social reaction is baked into the script, the TVC ceases to be a broadcast, even if the primary consumption is on TV and the actual engagement happens in another media vehicle (social media).

This is not new either. Print ads have always tried contests – ‘Write a slogan for our brands and mail it to us on…’ to bring interactivity. The problem there was that the response was to one person/brand – it wasn’t public. Social media allows that response to be in the many-to-many spectrum, not in the one-to-one spectrum.

If that’s the trend, then agencies could even start looking at data analysis as an integral part of the TVC creation process. Imagine agencies planning not just media spends, but also predicting and planning engagement metrics, more than mere ‘X million would have watched the TVCs’, and going into, ‘X million may have seen this ad, and Y lakh respondents (engagement) on Twitter and Facebook’.

So, the crux would not be to just get the attention of viewers (on TV, print or billboard – all considered to be one-way broadcast media), but to get a reaction out of them, and not just that, but to make that reaction tangible, on social media. This would be like the viewer exclaiming, ‘What a great idea!’ when he/she sees a TVC, but make it a share, on social media, exclaiming his/her reaction along with it. This means the creative has to work so much harder – not just evince a reaction, but also make it shareable… compelling enough to be shareable. Liking something is merely the first step – ‘I like it’. Shareable creativity is the holy grail – ‘I like it, and I think my friends will like it too, so here it is!? or, ‘I like it, and I think I’ll be seen as a cool person if I share it with my friends’.

An average TVC’s or print ad’s lifecycle may be expanded in that case, using data to track its lifespan. Release would be merely one of the activities; following up its response on social media (with a baked-in reaction mechanism that seems compelling) would be the next. Closure would be to look at it holistically – release, visibility and expressed reaction.

If this cycle was planned as a dashboard, that would be even better. The data can come into the dashboard in real-time (people viewing it either on TV, or on social media because it is being shared) and reactions captured and bucketed in real-time, for use by the brand.
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I continue to observe and learn, and apply the learnings in my work too. What else do you think are the larger trends in the Indian social media space?

Photo courtesy: Indipepper.

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  • Definitely one of the best reads I have had in quite sometime. Changes my perspective on a whole lot of things. And thank you for that.
    You have made your mark 🙂

  • Senthil

    Gems that you cannot find in any books. Thanks for sharing Karthik.

  • Very long Post , Great information I like it ,

  • Pradeep Rajadas

    I’d like to make a case for including Facebook Comments on your blog. You can use a plugin to secretly insert them into your database, if you’re worried about earned media/SEO. On the article – long but well written. Can I offer to get this changed into an infographic/series of infographics – it will save people some time. A lot of brands don’t understand the difference between owned and earned media. Some do, but feel the cost of owned media is still too high. You could create a generic publishing platform, self-host it and publish content using an Editorial Calendar to social media…oh, wait – that’s called WordPress.