Recently a very good Twitter pal of mine, Ankita Gaba expressed her views about the state of social media industry in India on Social Samosa. Her blogpost titled, Latest practices that are spoiling the Indian Social Media Industry highlighted few aspects that appear to be right on face of it!!! However, I having been in the shoes of an entrepreneur (ran a social media agency for a short period of time), a social media strategist and a PhD scholar (specialization in social media), can say that what is more worrisome is not the strategic elements but the tactical approach. I agree to all points highlighted by Ankita, but if you go deep down, there are four stakeholders of this industry and how each one of them thinks about the social media phenomenon matters the most.
I will argue from each of the stakeholder’s point of view – a) Social networks b) Brands c) Agencies d) Social media users, and point out where each of these have unreasonable and unclear objectives!
Let me start with Social Networks:
What do social networks have ‘unique’ on their platform?
They exposed the email and instant-chat users (including you and me) towards this new social networking phenomenon. It is similar to what iPhone did to a mobile user. Now, we see all iPhone users complaining of lack in innovation in the post Steve Jobs era.
Have we seen a radical or at least a continuous innovation since these social networks came into existence?
Facebook: Frankly, nothing unique!!! They just wait for a feature on other network to be adopted by users and simply copy the same in the modified version. They have figured every other way to earn, be it promoted posts, sponsored stories etc.
Twitter: Hashtag. What’s stopping them launching a separate feature for brands when all other channels – Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Pinterest have it? Is technology the barrier? Ofcourse not!
Google Plus: Hangout
LinkedIn: Another platform which merely follows Facebook!
Pinterest: Images! But, didn’t we have Flickr earlier?
That’s it? What’s so great about this overall social network ecosystem? Isn’t it similar to a TV, Newspaper, Magazine, Radio, OOH ecosystem where every medium has a specific ‘object’? If it is reality shows on TVs, it is full page ads on newspapers and live chat with a celebrity on radio.
So, where is the issue? I can understand that social networks can’t come up with a unique feature at regular intervals. There are some limitations on their side too. Hence, the innovation needs to be in the execution. I as a brand / agency can’t do much on Twitter except running a hashtag campaign and hence hashtag campaign as a whole aren’t wrong, but what matters is how you execute them. As rightly highlighted by Ankita, random hashtags don’t make any sense. I simply hate the #ReplaceMoviesWith___ type of hashtag campaigns. They need to be well integrated with the overall brand campaign.
If every brand is doing hangout, nothing wrong at all!!!! What matters, at the end of the day is what topics are discussed on hangouts and how are those videos leveraged further.
What I feel is the biggest objective for these social networks is to build a million odd user base, somehow find a revenue mechanism and milk brands. Can a social network charge ‘every end user’ and give some amazing features that the existing social networks haven’t been successful to do?
What are brands’ objectives on social media platforms?
Its definitely a herd mentality and when I was handling mostly SME brands at AdGlobal360 had an impression that large brands won’t be focused on fans and followers. But, believe me in my current assignment with ZenithOptimedia (a Publicis Groupe company) I interact with some of the largest brands in the country that still focus on numbers!!! I was recently involved in a discussion one of the largest FMCG conglomerates in the country had an objective to achieve 1 million fans for their top four brands by December’2013! Now, that sounds stupid right? But, that’s how amazing brand managers in such large companies think about social media. Ankita talked about educating brand managers and CMOs. Well, I don’t think most of the agencies (at least the frontline ones) shy to do that. But, the problem is with these brand managers with that stupid MBA degree (I am too an MBA and think it to be the most crappy degree on this earth!!) from IIMs, XLRIs, SPJains etc sitting on jazzy designations think themselves to be the most intelligent people on this earth!!!!
So, what’s the solution? Brand managers need to open their minds. They need to first move away from the presumption that agencies exist to milk them. I saw many suggestions in the comments section of Ankita’s blogpost of holding national level educative initiatives etc. I agree to all of them, but the assumption behind all those suggestions is that human beings are rational. The problem is they aren’t! Its all in the attitude towards learning. If a person thinks he has reached a particular designation and need not learn anymore, that’s where the problem starts. More importantly, why only brand managers and CMOs need to learn about social media? Let’s not forget and shy to accept that CEOs in this country need to be more open-minded and take further interest in the phenomenon and respect the view of building a truly ‘Social Business’.
I often hear from brands that agencies just plan a content calendar, prepare posts and reply to comments. They draw an analogy of these activities to what even their kids do on their profiles. Brands need to get out of this thought process. Brands need to realize that no agency would like to cheat a brand, because their existence depends on successful campaigns that they deliver. Most of the times where it goes wrong is the brand’s insistence on numbers. Brands need to realize the potential and purpose of social networks and understand how they can be well integrated with the overall business model.
What are agencies doing in this ecosystem?
There are two major types of agencies – large agencies who are part of global media groups and smaller ones run by entrepreneurs. Very rightly pointed out in Ankita’s blogpost, there are hardly any barriers to enter in this industry. A laptop, good internet connection and few average minds put together can start an agency. On the other extreme are large media groups that have in recent times extended their service lines with social media.
Larger agencies that are part of media groups have comparatively easier access to top brands in the country due to their lineage in traditional media. Now, building community for these top brands that have sufficient brand equity in the offline markets is comparatively easier. Also, these top brands have deep pockets and the large agencies in most cases have in-house resources for most of the activities. The campaigns are well planned and executed, but still hold your thoughts. Can you name a big brand that has impressed you the most with their social media campaign? There are very few!!!
Now, let’s take the case of entrepreneurial agencies. Let’s accept that they have to worry about their retainer fee. They anxiously wait for that payment as a salaried person waits for. So, even if some brands have an unreasonable objective, these agencies have to deliver them, else they are looked upon as incapable by our dear brand managers. The logic is very simple, as a customer the quality of food you desire, is what would be served to you.
I often interact with quite a few social media strategists working for large agencies and I also interact with founders of small media agencies and I am confident that most of them feel their hands tied! No matter how knowledgeable they are, their daily job just boils down to the discussion of CTRs, CPCs, CPLs, Reach, Impressions etc. A true professional would definitely feel at the end of the day that these numbers are far from real potential of the social media.
Social media users – the real scapegoats!
I really feel pity for this set of stakeholders. Everyone else in this ecosystem – social networks, brands, agencies achieve whatever they intend to. But, the poor social media user who jumped into a particular social network to just connect with friends and have fun, was tossed upon by brands for their respective needs and left behind by end of the day. The poor guys lands on a brand page with some expectation, but are later bombarded with posts, contests, applications which eventually leads to their exit. Brands and stakeholders find new ways to chase them with all sorts of paid efforts, be it sponsored stories, mastheads, remarketing banners and what not. A user wishes to read a news and he is welcomes with a ‘takeover page’, he escapes to listen music and he has skip few Trueads! If brands think they have successfully chased the user, well I believe customer always has the last laugh. Brands might be happy of achieving CTRs of 0.4 or 0.7, but the reality is the rest 99% odd people fooled you! So, who won?
An ecosystem can survive when there is a win-win situation for each of the stakeholder. The best example that comes to mind is that of e-choupal by ITC.
I can only dream of such a scenario in social media ecosystem, especially in India!!!