Can media become social enough?

A few days back, it was reported that Facebook now had a million active advertisers, and that LinkedIn has 3 million company pages. I’ll let that sink in, in case you hadn’t heard. Despite all the social-ness, I realised it’s impossible not to call it media. The wiki definition for media is “tools used to store and deliver information or data” That, for me, is a smartphone now! I also wondered how many media behemoths could boast of a million active advertisers. And that’s when it really struck me how much the traditional media we were used to have been sidelined – yes, they still get advertising revenue, but from a sheer reach perspective. Google, Facebook, YouTube and many more platforms get anywhere between a few million to a few hundred million visitors every day.  To put it all in perspective, TOI – the world’s largest English daily has a readership of over 7 million.

Media and advertising have had a very intertwined life, unless of course the publication/channel has been on solely a subscription based model. I think the magic of Facebook (and Google, before it) and those that followed is that they have democratised advertising by not just making it something any small business could spend on according to their means, but also giving them the ability to advertise according to contexts – intent, interest, social etc.  Though Google, Facebook etc are still intermediaries, they never flashed their powers, though the latter has begun to, recently. As brands move away from a one-size-fits-all mode of advertising, these platforms give them more options of form and function, and changing the face of advertising. (Google’s exploits are known, here’s a pertinent read on Facebook)

In such a scenario, what really does a traditional media channel have to offer to its consumers and clients? I’m not saying that they’re all going bankrupt next Sunday, but it’s clear which way the wind is blowing. One way, of course, is to use their brand value, and replicate (and grow) their audience on devices and platforms which better serve advertising interests. They can hone their value offerings by offering various contexts and their combinations – local, social, interests, and so on, and build business models for each. The early movers are already making big deals. But that is the red ocean that everyone is fighting for. How really can a player differentiate?

Biz_Is_The_ArtI had a vague thought. Media’s original strength was its relationship with users and the trust involved. In the social media era, how can that be leveraged? Flipboard has already allowed users to become curators and create their own magazines. Is that the future, along with shared revenue on advertising? What if users can also curate the advertising their ‘subscribers’ can see? After all advertising is also news/information and has a certain value depending on the source. Traditionally, media  has been the middle man between advertisers and users, but what happens when everyone is media? Can media start aggregating influencers in every domain, including niches, provide them the material for curation, negotiate on their behalf to relevant advertisers, and share the revenue? Perhaps the next  disruption will be the platform that can handle the complexities involved. What do you think?

until next time, mediator

The more things change….

Just a couple of weeks back, I’d written about influence and context, and last week the twitterverse had some excitement delivered courtesy Disney. I couldn’t experience it first hand, but got quite a lot of perspective thanks to Karthik’s post and the comments that followed.

Personally, instances such as Disney serve as a great filter for keeping track of the trust quotient. I don’t expect agencies/brands/celebrities to be unbiased or disclose, but once upon a time, it was natural for regular twitterati to do that. But times have changed, and all of this is personal philosophy, so I’ll move on.

On hindsight, and when comparing the patterns of evolution of traditional and social media, the current scenario seems inevitable! Platform – Community – Audience -Brand – Ads (hashtags) – and when ads became noise, brands differentiate by bringing in a fresh voice. (celebrities/micro celebrities) Where we are now is with an army of mini TOIs, relatively more genuine-sounding, and significantly less costly. There are quirks, of course. For instance, brands don’t have to pay the platform to be present, and can incentivise the community to provide publicity. On the flip side, brands are also ‘being held to ransom’ (previous post) by ‘influencers’ and we’ll probably see guns for hire being used by rival brands pretty soon. [Just last week, we saw a tweet from a person working at a competitor stating that she liked shopping at Myntra. One of the various scenarios we considered was a #conspiracytheory – that the moment we used the tweet in some way, the person would prove to be a non-employee and we’d be accused of playing dirty]

At one point, I really thought (or hoped) social would be new wine, but it has more or less ended up a new bottle. If we continue the evolution pattern, the future is easy to imagine. Context will disappear, and noise will magnify, until the next disruption. But I still have some hope, because the nature of the platforms (and the tools that are getting built) are such that a user can, at least to an extent, mould it according to the way in which he wants to consume it.

That does take me back to what I said in the last post – people will actively build their own trusted sources. And the real opportunity for brands is still to become a trusted source. Yes, I do think it’s possible, and we have a relaunched buzzword on cue – social business. In fact, there are probably brands doing it already, spending resources to build the foundations so that the hashtag (or its equivalent in the future) is not manufactured for its own sake, but is organically and genuinely built by contextually relevant influencers who can be publicly rewarded for helping the brand meet its business objectives.

But wait, that was where social platforms started too. Which leads me to wonder if the future of brands and media will always work in cycles, and end up near square one!

until next time, the more they remain the same…


Project Lead

My earlier post on media consumption fragmentation also made me think of the other side – the creation perspective. Despite the hubbub of “integrated campaigns”, some platform, more often than not, plays the lead. In earlier eras, choices were easier – until televisions came into the picture, it was limited to newspapers, events, radio; even after TV made its inroads, things like objectives, costs, geographical reach of the brand etc could be used to make decisions. In general, I’ve seen TV trumping print more and more as time passes, taking on the role of project lead.

After the advent of social, and despite the low internet penetration, the above parameters have increasingly started working in favour of social ‘media’. Of course, there’s always the beginning of the curve when everyone wants in because of the shiny new object syndrome, but I do believe we are crossing that stage now. I still see “let’s do this on social media too” (after the entire campaign has been conceived and produced) or the single slide on social rampant, but that’s also part of the learning curve. As always, some brands are moving faster than others.

We already have brands, internationally, that are experimenting (and successfully) with ideas that are inherently social, and using traditional media for say, additional reach. Just as TV took over from newspapers, it is possible that social will take the seat at the head of the table at some point. It is also possible that it would go the way of digital – relegated to performance campaigns, and belying its potential. That is even more so if social is measured in the same ways as the media before it. However, I think this time the story would be played out differently. But then again, I also think there will be a fragmentation of the brand story, understanding each platform’s nuances, using its inherent strengths, making frameworks that have tailored measurement indices, and in the process, providing a cohesive perspective to the consumer, and cohesive metrics for the brand.

until next time, leaderboards 😉

With a little help from friends…

It’s official now. I had suspected it for a while, but this post from Simply Zesty

shows that page admins across the world are wondering why the ‘Reach’ figures of their posts are on the downswing. This then starts affecting the other ‘vital stats’ of the Page as well – like PTAT. It really doesn’t matter whether FB is showing the actual reach number (you may question that if you’re also monitoring via 3rd party apps) or decreasing it further just to pile on the pain, because fundamentally they’re throttling the reach and you would have to go by the numbers they claim, because well, it’s official!

I’d say that FB is now behaving like a true media monopoly. It’d have been fine if the % of people who saw a page post were dependent on the positive/negative action taken by the people who liked the page. But this is just an “offer you can’t refuse” for the various advertising products that FB has begun pushing out aggressively. Should have known that IPOs have side effects. It hurts more because just sometime back, I’d written – in my ‘Social grows up to be media‘ post – that of the two (FB, Twitter) I had better hopes for FB. While Facebook owns the platform, (some) brands have done a lot of hard work in attaining fans organically through excellent content and engagement. By not allowing the content to reach these very fans, FB is being unfair. It becomes even more interesting when we figure that FB is now allowing brands to truly broadcast (beyond fans and friends of fans to everyone) their posts. On one hand, they are making their money from brands and at the same time, showing me an ad I never asked to see.

This could be just the start. I’m already hearing ‘viewpoints‘ of Facebook charging brands for pages. Knowing the way PR works, FB is probably setting the scene for this and we’ll be seeing more articles of this nature. Is this an unfair way to monetise one’s platform? That, in Facebook’s own words, is complicated.

More importantly, the larger debate of whether one should build (on) owned properties now becomes even more pertinent. What do you think?

until next time, pay walled…

Differentiate or die?

I’m close to finishing “A Clash of Kings” – Book 2 of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Pages 879-913 has lists of houses and characters. The lists will continue to expand in the next book, I’m reasonably sure, and I will probably have to spend Rs.200+ and buy this app. Many fantasy superstars have existed before GoT – Potter, LOTR, but this is the first time I have been immersed in one. Generally speaking, works of fiction are unique, and yet, such is the abundance and the related scarcity of time that there are choices to be made. So why GoT? Mostly courtesy the huge buzz the TV series generated on my various timelines. Let me now shift the story to brands, where abundance and time scarcity takes an even worse toll.

The title of this post comes from an article in FT. Without getting into the author’s bias/(vested) interest, I think he has a point when he says that the increasing focus on efficiency is stifling innovation and on the other side making consumers ‘number and dumber’.  On the business side, why bother with niche audiences when access to large sets of consumers through databases and mass media (now social media too) is much easier. On the consumer side, larger tribes are easier to find in the search for belonging. Of course these are generalisations, and I’ll be the first to admit that there are exceptions.

In the case of mass brands solving mass needs/wants, functional benefits are increasingly becoming a commodity. In an earlier age of information scarcity and relatively unfragmented media, differentiation could be as simple as just being visible. The story is different now, though the recent turn of social towards media would indicate that only the channels have changed. But IMO, there is a high chance that this trend will prove to be shorter than the reign of mass media, and true differentiation will evolve from a user perspective after everything from product to design to communication to experience has become a commodity. Arguable. :)

Increasingly, brands are using social media to target better, and that’s how platforms are selling their users too. I wonder if/how many brands at this stage are attempting to make their stories personal to the user. Different social platforms offer different contexts – in the way they are designed, in how users consume them, in terms of the need they satisfy, in terms of devices they are best suited for etc. Think of how Facebook, LinkedIn, 4sq, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Path and the other services you use fit into your lives. Yet how many brands are trying to fit themselves into these contexts? Yes, we’re still in the early days of Big Data, but how much of investments are brands making in this as opposed to say, better FB targeting? What do you think – is it a scalable form of differentiation? Is it because of the pull towards familiar forms and templates of communication (read targeted mass advertising) that brands are loathe to walk this long path?

until next time, differentiation by integration?

Bonus Read: The Future of Storytelling

Social grows up to be media

On the first page of BG Verghese’ “First Draft”, he talks of The Times front page on the day he was born -21 June 1927. The paper was priced at one anna and “only carried advertisements on its cover page as was the general practice.” This was how traditional media companies had always worked. They had probably begun as journals, and later had sponsored information. (ads) In an era of information scarcity, this was probably required and appreciated. Even if they were not, the complaints would spread only as WOM. More importantly, while they took money from readers, their real survival (generalising) depended on advertisers. In the case of radio and television, it is even more evident. Then came the internet, and a story that has oft been repeated. We’re not going there.

Though from email to BBS to Geocities to Friendster and beyond, everything can be considered social media, it began for me in the form of blogs (in 2003) became social networking via Orkut and really took flight with Twitter (May) and Facebook (July) in 2007. By this time, ads had begun to be ‘noise’ as media platforms proliferated. Twitter as well as FB served different purposes. As the cliche goes, “On Facebook, you connected with people you went to school with, and on Twitter, with people who you wished you went to school with.” In fact, such was my affection for Twitter that I even walked the talk. :)

Why this long winded narration now? Because what I’d considered social is now very clearly becoming media that happens to have a social past. Facebook’s Promoted Posts will now reach people who have not Liked the brands as well, and it is working on measurement systems that resemble GRPs. From its options – a real time cloud API company and a media company, Twitter has clearly chosen. It has now started throttling the third party apps that made it the rockstar it now is. In their chosen line, this is an inevitable step to protect the ‘value’ it sells. Promoted tweets can now be targeted on the basis of interest.

The disappointment, even if I reconcile myself to the fact that social is media, is the extent of evolution, or rather, the lack of it. Of the two, I have better hopes for Facebook now. Mark Zuck, despite the IPO, still controls it and from whatever he has spoken thus far, it seems this is not just a business for him, and though the ‘Promoted’ stuff on Facebook has now taken centre stage, the potential of the Open Graph remains and if it does evolve (as mentioned in an earlier post – last paragraph) it will continue to be interesting. Twitter? Oh well, Google’s AdWords is a megabucks one-trick, and it has Android. In the Google-like path it has chosen for itself, I can only hope that Twitter has a vision beyond being “sponsored”. If there is anything that media history has taught us, it is that irrelevance is just one service away.

until next time, growing pains

Branded Spikes

While waiting for the cognitive teardown of the immensely viral Kolaveri (like this Angry Birds one) in the form of either ‘What we can learn from’ or ‘How to craft videos like’ posts and also wondering how long it would take my Twitter timeline to move back from RIP to make-fun-of when a celebrity dies, I read this very interesting post titled “The New Patterns of Culture: Slow, Fast & Spiky” (via)

It offers fantastic perspectives on creation and consumption patterns of culture, and digital’s weighty role in the changes being wrought. The limited ‘spotlight’ options of an earlier era (mainstream media) now have to co-exist with platforms and mechanisms that are open to most. ‘Scale is no longer a guarantee of stability.‘ Consequently, attention is the more coveted prize. Another related phenomenon is that ‘Change no longer happens all at once for everyone‘. I remembered ‘IsItOld‘ when I read this. :) I sense quite a few concepts agglomerating here. Small ideas, which I haven’t written about for a while now, and transmedia storytelling, for starters, and a reversal of polarity. (the last via Neil Perkins post, linked to earlier)

Brands have always been using popular culture. One brand that I can immediately think of is Amul, and yet, I almost missed their Kolaveri ad. (via) Yes, not the greatest, but decent. The point here is that while they got the creation right, the distribution is still iffy. And that’s another challenge. Popular culture is more complex than ever before. With the abundance of content and platforms, keeping a watch on the long tail of culture, prioritising according to the audience-fit and then distributing it is not going to be an easy task.

I have always liked (and hence, borrowed with credit in presentations) the analogy of bonfires and fireworks to social media and advertising. (respectively) The implications of this are not just in standard brand advertising but also in branded content. Brands now have to think of how the long-term story and the spikes can work together and ideally, complement each other, even while figuring out what role advertising and branded content play in each. Despite the seeming fit of social media to spikes, I wonder whether we will, in the medium term, see a role reversal – ‘mass’ media providing spikes and the internet dealing with the long term story, before settling into shared roles.

until next time, get a spike mike

Coffee and brand stories

One of the best Indian brand stories I have seen in recent times is Chetan Bhagat. He has pretty much nailed the product, price and promotion, and gets better with each release cycle. Place? Bookstores, Twitter, Newspapers…… He has loyalists and haters, online and offline, and most people I know have an opinion on him. I religiously read every book that he brings out, not because I think he is a literary genius, but because he’s a reasonably good storyteller, and like it or not, he has the pulse of the nation’s youth, or at least a significant portion of it. I do avoid his columns because I can’t handle that brand of humour on Monday mornings.

I read his latest work Revolution 2020, and though it wasn’t quite the ‘Revulsion 2020’ that many made it out to be, I didn’t think it was a great piece of work either. (my review) But that’s not the story here. On page 108, a Cafe Coffee Day wove itself into the story, as the protagonist tells his father, “There is a Cafe Coffee Day opening in Sigra. It is a high-class coffee chain…..” I wouldn’t have thought more about it if I hadn’t remembered a story last year on how Chetan Bhagat had become CCD’s special friend, as part of their rebranding strategy. CCD makes another appearance in Page 116, and then several more later, as it becomes a routine rendezvous.

Inserting a product into a story is not a new thing. Product placements in movies are now taken for granted. I still remember the time I worked on a project in the early days of this phenomenon – WorldSpace (my employer then) and Lage Raho Munnabhai. But these days they are mostly a force fit and all the brands involved try to one-up each other through their own promos. No one wins.

But I haven’t seen a product placement in a book yet. To be fair, a few other brands like Frankfinn, Ramada, Taj also make appearances, but CCD gets top billing in Revolution 2020. Ah, billing. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, and it’s the author’s way of making the reader identify a little more with the story. CCDs are now, after all, ubiquitous. But if this is indeed an official tie-up, I think it’s quite a neat job by CCD. In the era of storytelling, when every brand tries to engage their audience via everything from TVCs to social media platforms, getting themselves into a guaranteed bestseller is a coup. CCD has always relied on its own stores than media campaigns for its storytelling, so this fits in. But if it’s indeed an official tie-up, and not a “what’s a few mentions between friends” arrangement, I’d have liked a disclosure from the author. It would’ve done his brand story’s credibility a world of good.

until next time, a plot can happen over coffee…

Brands, Identity and Consistency

So, Google+ kindly consented to host brands and organisations on the platform (announcement) and immediately gave examples of pages already available. These include Pepsi, WWE, Burbery and so on. The typical ways most brands have approached their new Google+ page is to use the features of the network (mostly Hangouts) to reasonably good effect, in addition to using the platform for content distribution and in a few cases, even displaying their employees. This last one was an interesting use case and has potential, I thought, and better than Facebook’s fanpage Admin version.

When I read the announcement, I immediately thought of brand identity. In the initial days of Google+ launch, the circles feature that allowed users to compartmentalise their different identities created a little flutter. It helped that, at that point, Facebook’s options for achieving the same ends were pretty well concealed. The visual identities of the brands on Google+ remain consistent with other online and offline platforms and so far, so do the tone and activities.

I have a different identity for different sets of people I deal with. Work, Friends, Family, Acquaintances, Twitter connections etc. How I behave with them and what I share with them varies too. (though there are overlaps)  I thought about this from a brand’s perspective. My relationship with a brand is different from the one that another person has. (use cases, context etc) And if I do have to share this relationship, what I’d share and the way I would share it would also vary among my own different audience sets.  In a world where the consumers are moving towards a fluid identity, do brands have to consider one too?

In the real world, brands sometimes tweak their identity according to geography. This was reasonable and worked fine in an era of mass media. With the internet, the whole world would easily see the changes across geography. And the end consumer could ask questions too. He/she even expects the brand to communicate like a human. If we consider different networks as different geographies, with peculiar consumption patterns (of information, for starters), does the consistency that brand currently focuses on become a constraint? Considering that different platforms have different advantages and are used for different objectives, how fluid can the brand and its communication be, on the web and off it?

until next time, identity crises

A Brand’s new story

Brands have always been storytellers, but new platforms bring with them opportunities and complexities that warrant a tweaking of the craft. Welcome to transmedia storytelling. And you can read the rest of my article on afaqs.  (Just this once, don’t mind) :)