Originally published in Brand Equity – The Economic Times.
From ?Log kya kahenge?? to ?log kya keh rahe hain?
(From ‘What will people say?’ to ‘What are people saying?’)
Assume you are the CEO of a brand of tomato sauce. You are not CEO material yet? Ok, assume you are the brand manager.
You wake up. Brush. Loo. At the breakfast table, your daughter tells you, “Dad, the new ad of your sauce brand is so damn good!? And also adds, “#SauceHoToAisa”. You smile.
You get ready for office. You get to your car. Your driver tells you, ‘Morning Sir. That new ad is so nice! I saw it on YouTube!? And, “#SauceHoToAisa”.
The car stops at a traffic junction. A person selling mobile chargers knocks on your window and gesticulates actively something. You roll down your window. He goes, “#SauceHoToAisa – love your sauce!?
You reach your office. The elevator operator (yes, Mumbai has people performing this profession.) smiles at you and says, “Sir aap ka woh naya sauce hai na, mast hai! #SauceHoToAisa”. (‘Sir, that new sauce of your company… it’s is really good!‘)
You reach your office. Your team member excitedly tells you, “We’re trending!?
That’s the offline version of what trending may seem like. It’s a ‘lot of people are talking about’ something. The difference Twitter brings to the same process is a bit different, and is tied to the nature of the medium – imagine if the daughter, traffic signal salesman, driver and elevator operator shouting, instead of talking to you. Shouting loud enough that at least 10-20 people near you heard them saying what they told you.
Trending does serve a purpose, if done right
Now, I’m not here to deride the trending business. It is useful, in many instances. And that depends entirely on what you are trying to trend.
Yes, ‘trying’ to trend. If you are out to sell something, and you are not a film star or politician prone to foot-in-the-mouth statements, very few trends happen organically. For brands and agencies, we know that a trend, if put in a plan, as a tactic within a larger strategy, is orchestrated.
The most organic orchestration (!) method is paying Twitter to be a Promoted Trend. Your trend’able hashtag goes right on top of the top trends list on Twitter and is called out as a promoted hashtag.
Brands are not content with this, though. They want to find their hashtag trending in the non-promoted list of 10. This requires orchestration of a different kind.
I know, personally, of at least 15 social media agencies that offer this as a service. Now, I know people in most of these agencies personally, and some of the agency heads are good friends too. They are very clear that they are doing it because (a) the client is asking for it, specifically and (b) there is money to be made; if they refuse, the client will go to any of the other agencies offering the same.
Social media agencies that aim to orchestrate trending build relationships with Twitter-based influencers (so-called) and ‘use’ them, on an on-going basis, with or without a monetary exchange, to tweet about client hashtags. This is standard operating procedure these days. You can argue for and against this process for orchestration trends, but it is happening already and very few people are going to listen to the arguments. So, let’s move on to a more productive debate.
The unasked questions around trending
No, that’s not the debate around sales and leads arising out of these tweets and trends. That kind of a linear connection between trends/tweets and sales/leads is rather useless, almost like asking for sales and leads from a PR effort (leading to an article in print).
Rather, the debate should be around relevance.
When agencies pick Twitter influencers to tweet for the brand and trend it, the category/industry the product or service (client’s product or service) is in, assumes a lot of importance. As a thumb-rule, the basic assumption is that a B2B product is far more limiting than a B2C product, simply because, technically, any and every person can be a potential customer for a B2C product, but the possible customers for B2B products are naturally much smaller.
So, tomato sauce, alcohol, toothpaste, chewing gum, underwear, cars, bikes, web URLs, e-commerce retail, airlines… all these technically can have anybody as a potential customer.
In comparison, software services, enterprise software, enterprise level Cloud services and offerings, consulting services etc. have a rather limited set of buyers/decision makers.
Does this mean a software services brand should never aim to trend? Not really. They could sure decide that they’d like to trend around their employee policies, so they can hire better people and serve customers better, as a result. Or, a consulting brand could aim to trend to showcase the kind of work they have done (which, if impressive and relevant to a broader set of audiences, will be useful; else, it’d be ignored by a large set of people, despite the paid/hired Twitter influencers tweeting about it endlessly).
For B2C brands, given the world is a potential buyer-base, most trends would at least help in building some brand recognition and visibility. Chances are, even a person not considering a brand, *may* possibly be inclined to see the trending hashtag and click on it out of sheer curiosity to know what is going on.
But, the debate is around relevance, as I mentioned earlier.
While we should expect a certain amount of irrelevant people tweeting furiously to trend a hashtag (that’s trend gaming at work), what brand managers and brand owners fail to ask, beyond, ‘Did we trend?’, is ‘Who are the kind of people helping us trend?’. And, more importantly, ‘what are they saying??
Now, internet has music reviewers and auto enthusiasts, but it perhaps has very, very few tomato sauce enthusiasts. Most consumer products are functional and do not evoke vocal admiration from people online, unless the product has managed to wow them (which is rather difficult for functional, mass-produced, single-purpose products) in some way.
So, no matter how hard you try, it may be reasonably difficult to muster enough inspiration to gleefully vouch for a chewing gum brand… more than once.
But brands and agencies try a different tactic, in that case – they build an emotion that goes with their brand of functional product (the one that their advertising usually evokes) and hope that the emotion trends and along with it, make the brand visible too. Good idea, but the thumb-rule for such incidental themes is, if you remove that brand and put another in place, would that make a difference? If it doesn’t, then that implies that there is no brand connect or product connect, and that’s always a problem, because even a trending hashtag should be of some purpose for the brand. If not, it is trending for the sake of it – helps only to the brand manager’s KPIs, nothing more.
The bigger problem is the questions not asked by the brand manager. One of them is, ‘Who are the kind of people helping us trend??
This should be the first deliverable after the agency has communicated the glorious news of ‘Aap ko beti hui… sorry, We’re trending now’. Any half-decent brand manager can go to Twitter, click on the trend and see what people are saying. The ones using an emotion-based peg (as against, say something good about our brand), will usually get a lot of stuff on Twitter. Who is saying that, but?
Are at least 10% (anecdotally, though a proper study is also possible, and feasible) of the people tweeting potential buyers? In B2B, this goes out of the window right away, but in B2C, you can argue that everyone tweeting with the hashtag is one. But you can always apply filters here. If the product is a luxury SUV that sells for upwards of Rs.50 lakhs, and the core tweeters are people with 2-5 years of work experience with no past recorded history of either luxury SUVs (not just aspiring for it in the long-run; that anybody can/will), then the brand should be doing a deeper dig. Because, that’s like releasing a print ad in a state that does not have a retail presence at all for the brand. In other words, pointless.
You sure can argue – why can’t one expect people who can be potential buyers to be following those pointless tweeters who were trending it? That is, a CEO of a company (potential buyer for the SUV) following a 2-5 year experience for-hire tweeter? That’s completely possible, but for the basic assumption we all make around affinities on social media. People follow/connect with others based on common/shared affinities and interests, in general. If they don’t want to waste time, that is.
A related question the brand manager should ask, ‘Has this person/these people who are helping us trend worked for another brand as for-hire tweeters??
This is a bigger problem. If you know that a person is for-hire, and tweets on any brand that pays him to do so, then does that person really mean anything he/she says at all?
This is easier to find, though. Click on the person’s Twitter timeline and you’d see the number of times they have endorsed some brand or other, using hashtags. Remember the offline-example I started this piece with? In that example, these will be the people who would be paid to stop you during your car ride and tell you that they love your sauce brand. And, #SauceHoToAisa. And move on to another person to say something about another brand. These people are doing a job and earning legitimately, no doubt, but they are not helping your brand. In fact, it may be counterproductive for a brand to be associated with people like these because that may be assumed to be the standard of our brand – go to anyone who’d say good things about your brand, for a fee.
The second question brand managers should ask is, ‘What are they saying?’. The agency orchestrating the trending, by whatever means, should present a snapshot of what is being said (that caused the trend) and more importantly, how does it connect to the brand. The first part is easy; the second is where most falter because the intention was only to get the hashtag to trend, not to let it aid the brand in terms of visibility.
So, the next time your agency sends screenshots of trending terms (with your hashtag at #1 or #3) across different cities and planets, please do ask the 2 follow-up questions ? (1) who are the kind of people helping us trend?, and (2) what are they saying that ties back to our brand?.
Picture courtesy: Beltway.