Nokia was in a bit of a soup last week thanks to a ‘review’ they posted on their Conversations blog.

Yes, they posted a ‘review’ of Nokia Lumia 620 on their blog; it was called a ‘review’, was posted by Adam Fraser, who, according to his LinkedIn profile is ‘Staff writer, Republic Publishing Ltd – Writing editorial content for Conversations by Nokia – the Official Nokia Blog’.


The comments are on expected lines. The first comment nails the overall sentiment accurately.

You just reviewed your own f***ing product. Absolutely ridiculous. How stupid do you think people are?

But… but, this post is not to deride Nokia for this supposedly dastardly act. Instead, let me question the detractors. Have you seen the ‘Press’ (or Media) section of other smartphone brands like Samsung, HTC or Sony? They have something called the ‘press release’ and they have tons of press releases that eulogize their own products – not very different from Adam’s ‘review’ that Nokia later called it ‘Hands-on’.

What is that I hear? Oh yes. The press section is usually agreed to be a place where brands can talk about themselves, but a blog is usually…! What? A blog is not meant to be a place where brands can talk about itself? Who framed that rule?

Let’s move from brands to individuals for a minute. Don’t individuals talk about themselves in mighty positive terms (coated with the best of English to make it tolerable) in their own blogs?

How about LinkedIn? I had posed this question last week on Twitter. Why do some people have their LinkedIn profile summary in the 3rd person? That sounds almost like an endorsement, but isn’t. Even in the 1st person tone, isn’t someone saying that they are ‘highly creative’ almost equal to the way Adam blogs about Lumia 620?

Not convinced?

I was part of a DNA story last week where the topic was social media influencers and the need for disclosure from them when they endorse some brand… for a fee.

I have blogged about one such influencer in the past (he was the crux of the DNA story) and argued not for him or against him, but for the evolution of the nature of influencers, the influenced and the medium used.

Consider this.

Brands use celebrities to endorse products. That is done to induce a few reactions in the target audience. Could be,

– ‘I love that celeb. So, I’d love what she is endorsing’
– ‘I want to be like that celeb. So, I’d use what she uses’
– ‘Isn’t this product everywhere because of that celeb? Lemme try it out’
– ‘Hey, lemme not switch channels/move off this ad because it has that celeb – seems to stand out’

We never asked the question of that celeb really believing in that product and using it. Somehow, the world accepted that it is completely normal for brands to pay an obscene amount of money to a celebrity and that viewers/readers will not question the veracity of the celeb’s claims about the product in question in the ensuing marketing campaign across media.

But people will question minor social media celebrities and brand pages/blogs on why there is no disclosure when they are being paid to endorse something or when brands use the blog to share what is otherwise a press release. Hmmm… interesting.

I suspect the problem is with the nature of the medium itself. Traditional media advertising is not a conversation; it is a monologue. Social media is a conversation. So, people will ask all kinds of things in the latter – where is the disclosure, why do you bother reviewing your own product in your own blog, how much did you get paid to write this review… and so on.

Brands, or social media celebrities who are at the receiving end of such queries have a choice of ignoring them and moving on.

Hunky dory? Hardly. There is that question of trust/credibility left unanswered.

Yes, trust. Or, credibility. If mainstream media celebrity endorsements are now considered to be one of visibility than trust, social media endorsements are still about trust, barring the cream of social media celebrities who offer reach (visibility).

Hrish Thota and his great grand mother in the social media celebrity endorsement business, Miss Malini (hats off to the way she has built a full-fledged team and process around the whole thing – almost replicates the offline celeb endorsement model!) are people who built an audience from the ground-up and are usually open about the entire process – that their audience is up for sale. People willingly choose to follow them online and read their blog posts – they always have the option to not do so, if they feel outraged that what they say is motivated by the money paid by the ‘client’.

In a way, Hrish and Miss Malini merely mimic the offline celebrity model – build audience over one thing or other and use that audience for perpetuity, if it stays with them.

Social media influence works on a different model, however. The expectation is that social media is all about hitting the ‘He/she is just like me – if he/she likes that product, I may too‘ button. To do that, you’d need to,

– identify the right social media influencers, based on the context of the product or its usage
– identify a lot of right social media influencers concurrently to gain reach/visibility
– interact with them closely and convince them of your product’s claims
– pay them, where necessary

It is up to these social media celebrities to disclose the nature of the endorsement, depending on how they interact with their audiences. The brand could win brownie points by insisting on such a disclosure so that it doesn’t erode its own perception amongst its target audience.

In a way, brands like Facebook are trying to do this in scale, unlike pointed, sporadic efforts by brands and social media agencies. Facebook’s ‘Related posts’ is a perfect example where they show 2 people from your friends circle as people who have liked a brand page on Facebook, and below it, almost as a ‘…by the way’, is a post by the product selling something. On a quick glance on your timeline, that makes it seem like your friends have done something with that product even though all they may have done is to merely like that page, eons ago. It’s not devious – just tactfully clever. It is up to you to differentiate between what you’d like to trust and what you wouldn’t.

So, for brands – you may do anything as you please, after all, you have been doing it in the offline media space for ages, anyway! So, you can blog a review of your wares using your own staff writer. But, people will question the claims if it is not explicitly mentioned (like a press release page) and you’d lose trust in your blog and the product in the long-run.

For individuals – you may or may not disclose the nature of endorsements in your tweets or blog posts. But, you’re merely pushing your luck with your ‘followers’ and ‘friends’. You’d be a lot less trusted if you continue to keep them in the dark and they find out the truth on their own. If you’re open, they may accept that as a given and perhaps trust you more!

For celebrities, online or offline – your followers are what makes you a celebrity. You could be a brilliant nuclear oncologist, but if nobody knows that, you’d just be a brilliant nuclear oncologist. If they know, then you’d be a famous, brilliant nuclear oncologist. And you’d have people following your body of work through some media – this is something you can use, to help appropriate brands reach their target audience. If the mode of communication is traditional media with no avenue for a conversation, you may choose the old world method of doing what you want. If the mode of communication is social media, you better be ready for questions.

To sum up, here’s a quick, handy glossary (click on the image for larger size)!



18 thoughts on “Evolution of social media influencers and the influenced

  1. Karthik – Is the whole idea of online-endorsement even comparable to online celeb endorsement? Isn’t it aimed at giving a one-among-us endorsing a product feel? Isn’t this what brands who rope in the Dhempes of the world are doing? | The very point that he’s one-among-normal-mortals and, unlike an SRK, does not have any celeb-value OUTSIDE these advertisement-tweets, brings in a sense of revulsion. Which I don’t feel against an SRK because I know that endorsing isn’t his primary job. And even though he hasn’t made any disclosures, I am conditioned to believe that it’s a paid-for-endorsement. Also, shouldn’t there be some sort of association between the non-celeb-one-among-us-dhempe and the brand he’s endorsing? (I doubt if I will buy a Hyundai just because of an SRK-endorsement). When a Dhempe endorses or ‘pimps’ brands from salt to software, there is a feel of I’m-being-cheated – no disclosures, no credibility around salt, or software – why would I believe someone like that? As an extension, if someone like a MadManWeb says that a brand of chicken is good, I may believe him – I’ll ask him if that’s a paid-for-tweet, but given the association, and unless I discover that it’s paid-for, I will trust. If there’s something called ‘trust currency’ that’s fundamental to online ‘relationships’ on public platforms, Dhempe-likes have zilch, as far as I am concerned. (Use of Dhempe’s name is indicative; apologies to him if he’s hurt).

    1. Good questions.

      That one-among-us-feel is lost if they do it for a fee: Dhempe hasn’t associated himself with one particular sphere/area. Same with Miss Malini. So, it makes sense to associate them with offline celebs like say, SRK – they are broad influencers with no focus. Madhu is very different – he’s known as an expert in cooking, thanks to the way he projects himself and the way he helps others. That makes him apt to be an influencer in that realm… and outside cooking too, given the credibility he has built as a person.

      For Dhempes and Malinis of the world, we just need to see beyond our individual opinions of whether we will buy from his tweets or not. Dhempe is connected to me on FB and you should just see the kind of messages he got as response when he posted the DNA article. The world is not me. Or you. There are so many other kinds too. Dhempe perhaps knows best what works for him and his audience and may not bother about a few people who think otherwise. If the few swell to many, then he’d need a course correction.

  2. Karthik, thank you for a very easy to understand primer. 🙂

    While I agree with you, there are a few things I am uncomfortable with. For example, you claim Facebook’s tactic as tactfully clever, not devious. While it is true, it is not a comforting thing to see my age old likes being leveraged to make them look like endorsements of what the brand has to say. While it is a fact that I did like the brand, it does not mean I like everything that they do/say, nor is it a license (not the legal meaning of the term, that would get into terms & conditions related discussions) to let facebook or the brand leverage it.

    Lots of ‘whiles’ in the above paragraph. 🙁

    And therein lies the dichotomy I guess. It is up to everybody to interpret what we say or do in whatever manner they deem fit, and that it is a matter of ethics and choice between short term vs long term effects for the brand to choose their manners. As for for the audiences, it is their choice to be influenced or not. The influencer are capable only so long as the audience chooses to be influenced by them.

    So the old maxim still persists, caveat emptor. 🙂

    1. What Facebook does with related posts (in specific) is this:

      Hello there… you know, your pal XYZ, he likes/liked this brand page. (pregnant pause). (one more pregnant pause). (clears throat) by the way, that brand has something to sell… see!

      Caveat emptor, indeed 🙂

  3. Karthik, I do not quite agree with the simple way you see it. Celeb endorsement is one thing, the social media endorsements (to an extent even by real-life celebs) is quite another.

    Also, you miss one point there: of credibility. We see ads as ads; seldom as credible source of info. In this case of SM “celebs” if their every tweet is paid/sponsored tweets/posts promoting brands and products, they lose credibility & “influence”.

    Let’s look at the example of our friend, Hrish. He may still have a following which is a little over the 1:1 follower:following ratio but it is highly arguable & unlikely that the tweet have any influence. Taking no credit away from him from what he has achieved, do you reall think anybody looks at his recommendations even for a restaurant or a toothpaste (if he did one) seriously?

    This would be different if there were some real world tweets among all those product ones. As regular reader of your and @bijli’s (only because he replied on Twitter) timelines, I the user develop a certain understanding and mental-position to your ideas – I will either like/dislike or be neutral/indifferent to your real world fancies and hates.

    This would impact the way I would be disposed to your opinions on all topics – even if it is about your own companies. As there would be when I tweet in promotion my shows or my workshops: You know it is me promoting my own offerings, yet you *may* give it a hear. This may happen only because we tweet on every topic that we feel strongly about.

    Moreover, to trigger any emotion to “connect” to the influencers, the least we need is an anchor to the person’s likes and dislikes. Else it is no different from seeing an advertisement as just that – just another advertisement.

    In short, any tweet will be weighed (knowingly or not) in the larger context of who sent it and why, as in the case of every communication that we come across.

    1. Allow me to throw a spanner 🙂

      Just like I talk about social media (primarily), how Madhu talks about food/cooking or you talk about your shows (these are our primary claim to fame on Twitter, so to say), why can’t Dhempe’s claim to fame be as a wheeler-dealer of brands on social media? Same with Miss Malini. They revel in brand promotions and talk about their experiences. There IS an audience for it, as evidenced by the relative success of Dhempe and massive success of Miss Malini.

      Besides that, the basic point is that this alone (being a brand promotions consumer and exponent) may not be a sustainable path to fame. As you say, you need to stand for something, besides being a pro-brands person. That helps ground your utterances in something real.

      My only point is this – there is a space and opportunity for advertisement for advertisement’s sake – disclosure or not – even in social media, from people like you and me. That’s the evolution I foresee.

      1. Thanks for that,Karthik. My short(er) response:

        “Advertising for advertisement’s sake” goes against the basic tenacity of social media. If it was as simple as that, we would not have had the need for others to try play influencers. The brand/product accounts would have worked by themselves.

        Look around the brands that we count as being successful on social media. These are the ones that talk to (and with) the consumers. They make the user feel special, and make a connect. If every day begot you posts on how great they are, and links – it would be… oh wait, that is exactly where most are getting it wrong.

        The SM experts would do well to realise this and develop areal-world connect with their following. Then again, we may be better off if they don’t 🙂

        1. “goes against the basic tenacity of social media: – there is no rule like that yet. Social media is still evolving and people are pushing the boundaries actively.

          There are many, many brands ‘successful’ on Facebook that don’t engage much and merely push interesting/brand content. So, success on social media cannot be seen within one parameter alone. Multiple models are being tested and success differs from brand to brand, person to person, depending on what they are after.

          In short: social media is evolving. It took 100+ years for mainstream media to evolve – need to give social media a few more years to evolve since so many people (the world) are involved in its evolution. Till then, it may not be prudent to hold on to one model (that we like personally) and assume it is the holy grail 🙂

  4. Phew! Veri Veri complicated to say the least. I am still trying to make sense of all the ‘socially accepted’ words/terminology, used by the stalwarts in the post & comments. Pardon me for mistakes that I may make in my comment. I am confused about the following :

    a) Endorsement & influence/er/ing are two different things. If paid for I may endorse a restaurant/product (maybe as a brand/product ambassador). Influence is my sphere of expertise as ‘perceived’ by me or my friends/family/followers which is more likely to be listened to. EG Neeraj Roy & couple of others were put up on large hoardings/advt for HP printer (AFAIK endorsement) Did it lead to spike in sales? Not really, because the objective was to create a perception of SME usage etc. Lucky, Girish, Deepak work in different fields, they influence me about Apple, Fitness, Finance talks, because they provide information in a manner I require, when I require etc. I had blogged about Brand Ambassador here which may be of interest

    b) Offline & Online – I have always been confused by these terms and this post has managed to continue the trend. The TA is different, the approach is different, most times the communication is 180 degrees different in both at least in India and in most brands. Also the key difference of One Way vs Multiple ways of communication seems to get ignored.

    c) Celebrity – This is a Duh! word as far as I’m concerned. Most times, celebrity remains & the brand goes away. And how lightly does one use the word lightly in the online space. A couple of months ago, a leading newspaper used ‘Celebrity, Influencer’ in the same breath/sentence for someone who had some 1100 twitter followers & 180 FB so how is ‘follower’ the true barometer of celebrity?

    Once upon a time there were just 1-2 product with a long waiting list (eg cars/scooters/telephones) and it was a sellers market, at that time the influencers were primarily family members, extended family & sometimes friends – because you did not talk about money to strangers.

    Today you have multiple options in products, buying, reading, listening – finally getting influenced by maybe a complete stranger or community as a whole and somehow this seems to be missing when brands look for influencers or to influence.

    Some weird examples of brands calling people aka influencers for a party to launch shoes. I have personally spoken to at least 7-8 people who attended & said – Free tha, I would not buy with my money. A car company who called ‘influencers’ to test their cars – 5 of them were not even planning to upgrade/change in the near future. And I’m sure all of us have many more examples here.

    Simply, summing this up: Audience is intelligent (unlike us old farts of bygone era) Treat them with respect. Likes of FB does not mean they’ll buy. Avoid force fit of contests/hashtags. Understand the logic of Likes. Don’t confuse celebrity, stardom, expertise, influence. Let the thread of basic communication remain consistent.

    Disclaimer: The above comment signify my views & has been written by me alone. I am not accountable if it does not make sense to you. I am neither paid to write this nor intend to influence anybody.

    1. Agree… broadly, because all this is good old common sense. Just one addition on the endorsement – influence part. Endorsement is step action and influence is the result. Influence need not be material sales/revenue alone – it could be perception/association too (that HP example). The point is if the endorser has enough influence (appropriate/relevant influence) to make a difference to the brand/product/thing in any chosen sphere – sales, perception, image etc.

      From that perspective, even social media stars could chime in, as much as offline celebs. As always, this influence is not scientifically quantifiable (sorry Klout, Kred etc. – they track only supposed reach), but anecdotally, brands can cross check efficacy if they have a good social media monitoring system.

      In case of e-commerce, tracking sales via an influencer program also becomes feasible since the whole process is online.

  5. And to add: Celeb endorsement has hardly been about credibility ever unless on rare occasions. In India at least, it is to gain instant recognition, brand awareness and top of the mind recall. As someone aptly put it, its baloney to think a Tiger Woods ever gracing a bulbous Buick when he has a million dollar yacht. Srk and Hyundai?

    The whole celeb endorsement has also been beaten to death now as most of the stars endorse multiple products and thus it sort of dents the TOMA of the brand itself.

    As for influencers/online, there have been so many howlers, the one I am reminded of is Target’s boo boo where they paid their test teams of bloggers and no one disclosed that a few years ago.It has been repeated by many other major brands

    Wayne Rooney is another great example where an advert was passed off as a tweet

  6. Wow. interesting read, both post and comments. Hope @dbf9fb13bb72ecff5d560de526ab1534:disqus @mahafreed are reading this, looking forward to more ‘evolved’ SM content in your newspapers and websites 😉

    @facebook-800570531:disqus just one point, pure advertising also works in certain cases – many of us know that BT is a paid supplement but we (most) still read it right? (and yes there are many others who don’t know about it). Same goes for interior/home decor magazines, advertising/advertorial is as read/seen/engaging as edit. So can social media behave in a similar manner too? Just like these MSM examples….. wondering.

    1. @twitter-15255795:disqus : Very good point, that. Just like how we derided (we still do) the evolution of pay-for-coverage (the examples of TOI or interior mags is perfect), I’m sure we will see evolution catching up in the social media space too. We may continue to not like it or approve of it, but it may end up being one of the models adopted by certain groups of people. As long as it works for them, and their audiences, I don’t see a problem.

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